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Rabbis' Blog

Ethics is an exact science

At the Kosher Food Club lunch this week the teens mentioned an ethics course offered at school. When I asked what the course was about, they shrugged and said “Debating ideas back and forth.”

I was intrigued to learn more about this course and how the students viewed it and asked if the syllabus included any rules as to what is considered ethical or not. I was surprised to hear that in the context of the course “ethics” meant your own personal beliefs, so I decided to make an impromptu experiment.

“Can you explain why murder is fundamentally wrong?” I asked the group. They all agreed murder was terrible and intolerable, but could not formulate a logical argument why it was fundamentally wrong. Things get more complicated when considering the fact that killing in self-defense seems to be the right thing to do. Where do you draw the line?

In this week’s parshah we learn about “Matan Torah,” the dramatic event when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. There was a tremendous commotion throughout the world, with an impressive display of thunder and lightning as G-d communicated the Ten Commandments directly the recently freed slaves gathered around the mountain.

It was a truly consequential event but when reading the story something truly perplexing emerges. Most of the commandments deal with elementary issues like honoring parents, being honest and not killing or stealing. Do these simple messages justify such global pomp and ceremony? Don’t we all know this intuitively?

Here’s the thing. If society abstains from killing and stealing just because it feels wrong - without being motivated by fundamental principles - people will find ways to rationalize the worst possible behaviors. Need I say more than “Nazi Germany?”

I recently saw a Facebook post of a letter a German high school principal shares with his teachers every year.

“I am one of the survivors of a concentration camp. My eyes have seen things no man should see. Gas chambers built by well trained engineers, children poisoned by well trained doctors, babies killed with needles by well trained nurses, people shot and burned by high school and university graduates.”

“This is why I’m skeptical of education. My request to you is as follows. Strive to make your students human. Don’t allow your efforts to produce knowledgeable monsters and inventive psychopaths. Literacy and math only matter if they help your children become more human.”

This is why the Revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments are such a big deal for all humanity. They yanked ethics out of the “liberal arts” column and placed it squarely in the “exact sciences” column. Ethics are not defined by our feelings or societal norms; they are determined by G-d. The fundamental reason we must never murder is because G-d forbids it; and the same G-d permits killing in cases of genuine self-defense.

Sinai made it possible for world peace to happen. So long as we rely on our own subjective reasoning to shape societal norms there will always be jealousy and war. When we allow the fundamental principles of G-d to guide our way of life, this will set the stage for all humanity to live in total harmony and cooperation.

Yep. Sinai was a big deal.

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Something you should know about trees

My grandparents, Rabbi Gershon Mendel and Bassie Garelik, were newlyweds when they embarked on their life-long mission to Milan, Italy. The Rebbe appointed them to be his emissaries to bring the light and joy of Judaism to Italian Jewry in the winter of 1958, and they were sent off from Chabad World Headquarters with much pomp and ceremony, brimming with idealistic optimism.

Six years later the daily grind was getting to my grandmother. Upon their arrival there they established a Jewish school and those early years were extremely challenging, to put it mildly. Things came to a head and she shared her frustration with the Rebbe in a letter which stated amongst other things, “I feel like my soul came to this world to knock on people’s doors to recruit their children to a Jewish school and get rejected.”

The Rebbe responded with a beautiful letter of encouragement and I’d like to share one paragraph we can all learn from.

“In the literature of Chassidus, such activities are classified and explained under two categories: “seeding” and “planting.” The difference is this: In the case of seeding, as, for example, sowing wheat, the fruits take less time to appear than in the case of planting a tree. The reason is that in the case of the former the results, though many times the original effort, are considerably smaller than in the case of planting.”

“Similarly in the efforts and activities of a human being, there are such that come under one category and/or the other. If, therefore, it sometimes takes longer for the efforts to come to fruition, this is no reason for discouragement; on the contrary, the reason may well be that it is a case of “planting,” where the ultimate results will be infinitely greater.”

Needless to say, this school is today a thriving institution and the pride and joy of the community.

On Monday we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Jewish month Shevat which is identified as the “New Year for Trees.” While this date holds the most significance and relevance regarding agriculture in the Land of Israel, it is the message we can learn from trees that should inspire us on this day - because the Torah compares people to trees.

Contrary to a wheat field where one can throw seeds into the ground indiscriminately and expect results very soon, trees demand much attention and patience and the results can take many many years until they finally appear. But fruits are far superior than wheat kernels in so many ways. Children demand tremendous attention and patience and it can take years of sweat, tears and aggravation until we see the delicious results and the same is true of community.

Jewish education and community activism are a labor of love, and with the right amount of effort, patience and belief in the cause we will see the fruits of our labor in due time.

 

 

The “Long Form” Birth Certificate

Among the chaos and excitement of birth there is always someone watching the clock to determine the “time of birth.” Aside from recording the date of birth, we keep track of the exact minute this new life entered the world, which is recorded on our “long form” birth certificate.

In this week’s parshah we learn how after generations of slavery the long awaited redemption finally happened after G-d afflicted Egypt with the final plague of killing their firstborn children. The Torah records the day and time the plague struck: midnight of the 15th of Nissan - famously celebrated today as the first day of Passover.

As predicted, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and Pharaoh frantically demanded the Jews leave immediately. Moshe refused to budge until daybreak and by the time the group of millions of Jews left Egypt it was in the middle of the day. In fact the Torah once again records the exact hour: midday.

The prophet Ezekiel compares the exile in Egypt as a time of pregnancy and the exodus as the birth of the Jewish nation; when they were finally extricated from the environs of another nation. So Passover is our national birthday. As is customary with all births it seems logical for the Torah - as our national “long form” birth certificate - to record the exact moment of our birth as a nation in addition to the date. But here is the big question: were we born at midnight, when Pharaoh announced our freedom, or at midday, when we actually left the land of our affliction?

There are good reasons to trace our national birth minute to either midnight or midday but the fact that both times are recorded in Torah is in order to teach us something profound about Exodus and its relevance to us here and now.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim” which is etymologically linked to the Hebrew word for borders and limitations. The redemption we celebrate on Passover is not just the commemoration of our ancestors’ freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt. It was the watershed moment when every Jew was given the ability to overcome every limitation, constraint or challenge that he or she may ever encounter. We are never truly enslaved to our inner vices or inhibitions.

This fact must be clear to every single Jew regardless of their situation in life - whether they are at the point of “midnight” or “midday” in their personal lives. Midnight represents the ultimate darkness and midday represents the most brilliant light. If a Jew may currently be the lowest of the low - he or she should know that they can overcome everything to rise above it all to fix their lives. And if a Jew is at the pinnacle of spiritual achievement, he or she must know that there is always room for more growth.

Because breaking through boundaries is the foundation of our Jewish identity.

 

Rock Bottom is not the End

Classics never get boring. Every time you reread a favorite book you discover a new detail in the story that changes your entire perspective. Of course this is true about the Torah and despite the fact that we learn the story of Exodus multiple times a year, one can still find something profoundly refreshing hiding in plain sight that changes everything.

Stuff happens and at times people get into situations where, as a result of their own bad choices, they find themselves in a very dark place - commonly known as “hitting rock bottom.” The unbearable feelings of pain, anguish and helplessness are overwhelming and one wonders “is there a way out for me?”

My intention today is not to analyze this problem from a psychological or clinical standpoint, but purely from a spiritual Torah angle: what does G-d tell us about hitting rock bottom?

Pharaoh and the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites for several generations and actively sought to eliminate them as well. They did horrible things, and months before the redemption, Pharaoh’s savage medical experts literally prescribed him a “blood bath” for his terrible skin ailment: to slaughter Jewish new-born baby boys and bathe in their blood. On every metric Pharaoh and the Egyptians had reached the “rock bottom” of immorality and depravity.

At this point Moshe returned to Egypt and delivered the famous message “Thus says G-d: Let my people go so they may serve me!” to which Pharaoh so arrogantly responded “Who is G-d?”

Pharaoh did not disobey G-d; he refused to acknowledge the existence of G-d. But while he refused to have a relationship with G-d, G-d wanted to have a relationship with him and his people. Instead of wiping them off the map and ridding the world of this menace instantaneously, a months-long process of strategic plagues followed, with the stated purpose that Pharaoh and the Egyptians should ultimately “know G-d.” Although the relationship would never be a loving and pleasant one - because they had sunken to such spiritual depths - it would be a relationship nonetheless, with purpose and meaning.

The plagues were not simply about revenge or punishment; they were about education and empowerment. To reveal the essential divine goodness that can be found even in the spiritual abyss of biblical Egypt.

This is not about excusing bad behavior or absolving bad people from suffering the consequences of their bad choices. It’s about appreciating the fact that everyone can and should have a relationship with G-d regardless of how low they have fallen.

If G-d did not give up on Pharaoh, we should never give up on ourselves or anyone else because hitting rock bottom is never the end.

 

Moshe, Maimonides and Me

Earlier this week I was speaking with a friend who listens to daily Torah classes by Rabbi Yehoshua Gordon obm on the weekly parshah. (They’re great! Check them out here.

He found it peculiar to be learning the story of the Jews in Egypt and the birth of Moshe when Passover was over three months away. Of course, the Torah reading cycle does not coincide with the Jewish festival calendar, but something special about today actually connects to this week’s parshah beautifully. Here’s how.

Today, (Friday the 20th of Teves) marks 817 years since the passing of Maimonides. His full name is Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon and he is most famously known in Judaism by the acronym of his name RaMBaM. While he lived over 2,500 years after the story of Exodus, his life shares so many parallels to it, which makes the fact we are commemorating his life today quite amazing.

Firstly, he shares the same name as the main protagonist and hero of the Passover story - Moshe, whose birth we learn about this week. Even more amazingly, Maimonides was born on the eve of Passover, literally hours before the Seder! At a young age his family was forced to flee for their lives from their hometown Cordoba, Spain - just like Moshe escaped from Pharaoh’s executioners - and he ended up settling in Egypt of all places.

Moshe spent considerable time in the Egyptian Royal Palace and Maimonides served as the personal physician and advisor to the Egyptian sultan.

But their strongest commonality is in their legacies. Moshe’s greatest contribution to Judaism and humanity is the Torah. As the prophet who communicated G-d’s laws to us he transcribed the Written Torah for posterity. However, most of the details remained an oral tradition passed down through the generations by tens of thousands of dedicated teachers and students. While the Mishna and Talmud became the first authoritative records of this tradition, they were never fully complete, nor easily understandable to the masses.

Maimonides codified and indexed the entire corpus of Jewish law in a systematic fashion, in language understood by the most basic Hebrew reader in his magnum opus entitled Mishneh Torah, which remains the only work of this scope to this day. The impact it continues to have on Judaism is so powerful that the epitaph inscribed on his tombstone in Tiberias reads “From Moshe until Moshe, there was none like Moshe.”

All this he accomplished while living a life of tremendous pain and hardship. Instead of surrendering to his trials and tribulations, he rose above them and focused on the task at hand to make the world a better place. His life and teachings continue to inspire millions around the globe.

I am privileged to study Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah every day and I invite you to join the global daily study movement which will uplift and inspire you. Learn more about it here.

 

Who Knows Eleven?

This week we hosted our third Kosher Food Club. Twice a month, teens from Coronado and Franklin High Schools come to Chabad during lunch break to eat, schmooze and do some Torah learning. I asked them if it was ever appropriate for a parent to show favoritism to one child over the others and an interesting discussion ensued. Like most things in life - it depends.

The child the doctor will be the most valued in medical situations and the child the lawyer will be front and center when legal issues come up. The same applies to the first Jewish family - Yaakov and his twelve sons. Although the favoritism Yaakov showed to Yosef over his other brothers had some tragic results, it’s justified when viewed from a spiritual perspective, and even became part of the lyrics of a Jewish song.

The classic Passover song Who Knows One? covers all the Jewish fundamentals in numbers. One G-d, two tablets, three patriarchs etc. For number eleven we declare “Eleven Stars!” referring to the episode of Yosef’s dreams that ultimately led to the gravest family feud in our history.

At age seventeen Yosef dreamed of the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing to him. When he shared the dream with his eleven brothers they were infuriated at the fact that he was insinuating they would all bow to him in submission and their anger led them to sell him off into slavery. Ultimately Yaakov and the brothers prostrated themselves to Yosef as viceroy of Egypt, but is this tragic story necessary to reference in a celebratory song about our foundational beliefs? After all, number twelve reminds us of all the twelve tribes. Must we emphasize the inferiority of the other eleven to Yosef?

While his brothers were saintly shepherds secluded from society, Yosef was thrust into the bowels of the most ethically deplorable nation at a very young age. Being a slave in Egypt was the worst evironment for being saintly, let alone stick to your morals and ethics. Even after he was appointed viceroy of Egypt the sheer weight of his duties and the public exposure was certainly not conducive to spiritual focus.

Nevertheless, he managed to remain the same saintly son of Yaakov as the rest of them, and even elevated the morality of Egypt - an accomplishment they couldn’t fathom. Even as a young lad Yaakov sensed Yosef’s spiritual superiority and tremendous potential and invested everything he had in the young prodigy, because the ultimate goal of the Abrahamic family was to bring the light of monotheism to the entire world. The other eleven were subordinate to Yosef because they needed to learn this important trait from him.

Specifically Yosef - not his father Yaakov or the rest of the brothers - promised the Jews they would ultimately be redeemed from Egypt and return to the Holy Land because he inspired all of us to be just like him. To engage with society with Jewish pride and purpose and influence humanity to make our world a better place, ushering in an era of redemption when true peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Coping With Trauma

Life can throw a lot at a person and there will always be the optimists and pessimists amongst us. Some will view every opportunity as a challenge and others will view every challenge as an opportunity. But there are scenarios that are objectively traumatic, where even the staunchest optimist will be crushed. Is there a Torah perspective on how to navigate these events?

In this week’s parsha we continue learning about the long and tortured narrative of Yosef and his brothers. Their relationship was complicated from the start and they eventually kidnapped him, sold him off into slavery when he was 17 years old and covered it up by staging his death.

During the span of their twenty two year separation Yosef was sold multiple times, brought down to Egypt, imprisoned on false charges and then elevated to the highest levels of global power -  charged with the responsibility of providing the entire region with food during a devastating famine. Despite his meteoric rise to power, the objective observer would conclude that Yosef’s experience was truly traumatic.

Back on the Land of Canaan, his brothers were filled with remorse for what they did and resolved to bring Yosef back at all costs. When they arrived in Egypt to purchase provisions for their father Yaakov and their families during the famine, Yosef set in motion a complex and multifaceted plan to ascertain whether they regretted selling him over two decades earlier. They passed the test with flying colors and Yosef knew the time was ripe to reveal his identity to them and set in motion the family reunion.

What are the first words you would say to someone who subjected you to unparalleled trauma?

Here is what Yosef said to them after revealing his true identity and seeing their understandable shock and deep shame: “Do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me before you. For already two years of famine have passed in the midst of the land, and for another five years, there will be neither plowing nor harvest. G-d sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land, and to preserve it for you for a great deliverance. You did not send me here, but G-d.”

Yosef did not demand an apology or explanation for their actions; neither did he allow them to express their remorse to him and work things through. He did not rewrite history and assure his brothers they did the right thing. His perspective did not absolve his brothers of wrongdoing, nor wipe away the personal pain he certainly experienced. But ill feelings, hatred, revenge or paralyzing trauma had no place in Yosef’s world, because he clearly understood that every problem “life threw at him” was really a divine mission.

Yosef was neither an optimist nor a pessimist. He was the ultimate realist. His mindfulness of the fact that everything happens according to a divine plan allowed him to survive the decades long ordeal mentally and emotionally unscathed.

 

When the unremarkable becomes epic

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. We all heard about that rule, but do we truly appreciate it?

Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil. Over 2,000 years ago in the Land of Israel, the heroic Maccabees revolted against the much larger Greek occupying force and won. Upon retaking the Holy Temple they sought to rededicate it by restoring the service of lighting the seven branched menorah. Alas, no ritually pure olive oil could be found. Miraculously they found a small jug of oil with the High Priest’s seal intact, hidden in the earth - a clear indication that it was still ritually pure.

There was only enough for one night and procuring new oil would take eight days. With profound trust in G-d they lit up the holy lamps, and by a wondrous miracle the one-day supply burned for eight days and nights. That’s how Chanukah came to be and each year we light candles for eight nights, play dreidel, eat latkes and retell the miracle of the oil.

We often dwell on the second part of the miracle - the fact that a one-day supply lasted eight days. But the first half of the miracle - the discovery of the oil - holds a tremendous lesson for us here and now.

The “miracle oil'' was not discovered in a golden flask hidden in a secure chest in the Temple’s vault. It was a clay jug buried in the ground, discovered by a sheer miracle. An objective observer would have concluded that this ugly, dirty clay jug containing barely a day’s worth of oil was hardly something to write home about. It turns out that the unremarkable jug became the catalyst for the most epic miracle in our history.

In this week’s parsha we learn about Yosef’s rise to power. He was a teenager when he was sold into slavery by his own brothers and then ended up in prison for ten years for a crime he never did. To the objective observer he was a lost case; a pathetic, dejected kid who would never accomplish anything.

In an amazing turn of events Yosef rose from prisoner-slave to viceroy of the world’s undisputed superpower and saved civilization from starvation. Yosef did not change overnight; his circumstances changed. Once given the opportunity to express his true colors he was able to change the world forever. He became a beacon of moral and ethical light for all people in his time.

Similar to the small amount of olive oil in the ugly clay jug of Chanukah. Once it was discovered and used for its intended purpose, it changed the world forever. Illustrating the superiority of light over darkness and good over evil.

We all have a tiny jug of pure olive oil inside of us. The organic drive to do what is right. The eternal flame of love for G-d and Judaism. It may be trapped under layers of negativity, apathy and assimilation, but it’s always there. Waiting to be discovered and enabled to unleash unlimited goodness and light to the world.

Make Family Dinners Great Again

Dinner conversations are a big deal. Even with delicious food and the perfect ambiance, awful table chatter will ruin the evening. Often one can choose whom to have dinner with, but certain occasions bring people together with relatives with whom they share nothing aside from genetics. Hence, Passover Seder and Thanksgiving dinner jokes abound, poking fun at generation gaps or political and cultural divides.

Unfortunately this is no laughing matter since many family once-a-year reunions devolve into chaos that could have been avoided. Eating in silence is not a solution either and it would be a shame for families to stop seeing each other, so what can be done to make family dinners more enjoyable and pleasant?

Here is a quote from Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers (3:3): Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten of idolatrous sacrifices… But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G‑d's table.

At first blush it seems counterintuitive to discuss Torah during meal time. How can the mind focus on deep theological and spiritual concepts while enjoying brisket, turkey and fine wine? However, Torah is not limited to the abstract. It's the blueprint of creation and a guide to every aspect of life.

Dining with friends and family loosens us up and the dinner table can become the source of conflict or friendship. When we choose to share words of Torah at such a pivotal moment, we include G-d in the conversation, and the dinner table becomes a catalyst for unity and peace. No need for lengthy lectures. Even a short message can do the trick.

So here is something you can share at Thanksgiving dinner. When our patriarch Yaakov returned to the Land of Israel, his brother Eisav marched towards him with 400 mercenaries to destroy him. The frightened Yaakov prefaced his prayer to G-d like this. “I have become small and inadequate from the tremendous kindness You have done for me. I fled from this land as a destitute refugee with only a wooden staff to call mine, and now I am returning with a large family and tremendous wealth.”

Although G-d promised Yaakov he would survive any trouble he encountered, his tremendous success made him feel unworthy of G-d’s protection and blessing. Instead of taking credit for making it in life, he acknowledged that everything he had was a blessing from G-d and felt that he should have been more dedicated to G-d’s service than he already was.

Yaakov teaches us the Jewish ethic of giving thanks. It’s not just the polite thing to do; it’s the realization that I ought to grow in my sensitivity to others and intensify my dedication to fulfilling my true purpose in life. To channel all my success to make this world a better place by increasing Torah study, mitzvah observance and giving charity and inspiring others to do the same.

Enjoy dinner!

 

 

Have Another One

Naming children can be intense. Some parents peruse through hundreds of names in search for the perfect sound while others agonize over which ancestor to honor. The rules can differ based on communities. Ashkenazim traditionally never name after a living ancestor while Sefardim consider it the greatest honor. Baby naming can be the source of much speculation and drama but it's a small price to pay for the joy of welcoming new life into the world. 

Rest assured whichever name the parents settle on is certainly meant to be. The Kabbalistic masters explain that an individual's name is their conduit to divine life, energy and inspiration, and naming a child is a mini prophecy gifted to each child's parents.

In this week's parsha we learn how Yaakov built the first Jewish family. He ended up having twelve boys and one girl and each time the respective mother gave the name based on her unique experience with that child's birth. Our matriarchs were prophetesses and the names they gave their children came to define their lineage in so many ways.

Leah was the first to have children, and she named her first son to reflect her relief at being able to have children despite her anguish (Reuven) and the fourth to simply give thanks for the gift (Yehuda).

Rachel experienced much drama in having children. While her sister Leah gave birth immediately after marriage, she was infertile for many years.Rachel cried and prayed for seven years until she finally conceived and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She named him Yosef which means "addition" and simply said "Oh G-d, please give me another one!"

Rachel's prayer was not simply the desperate wish of a mother to have at least one more child. She articulated a profound rallying cry that would come to define how Jews would forever ensure a Jewish future.

The words of her prayer can be read like this: “May G-d grant that I transform a stranger into a son.” Judaism is a family and at times some children can feel estranged from their heritage and home. They have no access to the language and the specifics of our glorious traditions seem foreign and archaic to them.

The mitzvah of “Having Another One” obviously means bringing more children to the world, but this mitzvah is relevant even to those who are not yet or no longer at the age and stage of growing their families. Seek out a Jew who feels like a “stranger” to Judaism and transform them into a “child” of Judaism. When we ensure that every Jew feels at home in the synagogue, at the seder table and at a Torah class, we are doing our part to grow the Jewish family. And like Rachel, when you succeed with one, pray to G-d that you can do the same for another.

 

Outsmarting the Enemy

Reality is stranger than fiction. In a fictitious world the stronger side always wins. History proves this is not necessarily the case. The American Colonies stood no chance against the mighty British Empire and the American Revolution was doomed for failure. But through ingenious sabotage, misinformation and other shady tactics employed by the “honest” George Washington, our country survived and we reap the benefits today.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the most important trajectory of the Jewish nation. Yitzchok and Rivkah gave birth to two twin boys who had nothing in common. Eisav was a corrupt and wild man guilty of murder, rape and theft, while Yaakov was the polite, soft scholar we’d rather keep company.

Fearing his days were numbered, Yitzchok, who was already blind, wished to bequeath the tremendous blessings of destiny to his progeny and chose Eisav as the candidate. He reasoned the tremendous blessings would somehow anchor Eisav’s unlimited energy and channel it to conquer civilization with the truth of monotheism.

Rivkah understood this was a colossal error and disguised Yaakov as Eisav to receive the blessings instead. She covered his smooth skinned arms with the sheep skin so he would feel like the hairy Eisav. Upon entering the room and calling for his father to partake from the delicacies he prepared, Yitzchok realized that his tone of voice and language was quite different from Eisav.

“Come closer, my son,” he requested. “Let me feel you, to be certain you are Eisav.

Feeling the hairy sheep skin on his arm he commented, “The voice belongs to Yaakov, but the hands belong to Eisav.”

The ruse worked and Yaakov received the coveted blessings for his eternal progeny.

Yitzchok’s comment about the voice and hands were not said in confusion. They contain the secret to Jewish continuity. When the “hands of Eisav” - the violent and murderous attacks of our enemies - seek to destroy us, the “voice of Yaakov” - our Torah study and prayer - neutralizes them.

The Talmud relates that in ancient times Jewish school children studied Torah from scrolls and the very small ones used “pointers” to follow along inside. When war threatened to destroy Israel the children declared, “We will fight our enemies with our pointers!”

They knew the tiny pointers were no physical match for the spears of their enemies, but they were confident that the Torah they learned was the greatest strategy to outwit and outsmart their enemies every time. The convoluted and twisted story of Yitzchok’s blessings teaches us the power of Jewish education and how crucial it is to Jewish survival.

 

Light is Essential

Hugo Gryn was a teenager when the Nazis invaded his Ukrainian hometown, rounded up the Jews and deported them to Auschwitz. On the night of Chanukah, as Hugo shivered in their barracks he saw his father pull out a small tin cup with a small lick of butter at the bottom of it. He pulled a thread from his camp uniform, inserted it into the butter and proceeded to light it while reciting the Chanukah blessings under his breath.

Hugo was outraged. Not because his father was endangering his life by lighting the Chanukah candles, an offense for which he could be shot on the spot. He found it simply impractical and asked his father how he could possibly waste a lick of butter that could provide much needed nutrition for their bodies, by lighting it for Chanukah for just a few minutes.

His father looked him in the eye and said. “Hugo, if Auschwitz taught us anything, it is that our person can live for days without food but he cannot live for one moment without light.”

This week’s parsha opens with the sorrowful news of Sarah’s passing. The brave woman who partnered with Avraham in bringing awareness of G-d to a heathen and often hostile world was mourned by all, but no one felt the loss more acutely than her only son Yitzchok. The narrative continues with the dramatic story of how Avraham’s servant Eliezer searched for a suitable wife for Yitzchok and miraculously found the kind and generous Rivka.

Upon his marriage to Rivka, Yitzchok was finally consoled for the loss of his mother and Rashi’s interpretation communicates that his consolation was because she was exactly like his mother Sarah.

Three miracles happened during Sarah’s lifetime. Her dough was blessed that there was always plenty to feed and satisfy the many guests who frequented their home; a divine cloud hovered above her tent; the Shabbat candles she lit on Friday afternoon miraculously burned throughout the week until the next Friday. All three miracles ceased when Sarah passed away and returned when Rivka arrived.

As our matriarchs, these miracles serve as a guide and inspiration for us today.

While the miracles of dough and divine cloud represent the human essentials of food and shelter, what could be the purpose of the Shabbat candles burning all week long?

Sarah and Rivka teach us that while food and shelter may guarantee survival, light is essential for living. Physical light allows us to find our way in the world and interact with others pleasantly, and the spiritual light of Torah clarifies what life is all about. To live life with dedication to a purpose higher than ourselves and serve as shining examples for everyone around us.

By lighting Shabbat candles each Friday at the appropriate time and reciting the blessing, we welcome the eternal light of our matriarchs into every facet of our lives. Long after the physical flame disappears, the message of light lingers throughout the week, inspiring us to add in goodness and kindness, preparing our world for the imminent arrival of Moshiach, when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Higher Than Self

Perhaps the most famous quote from a presidential inauguration is JFK’s historic “Ask not what your country could do for you - ask what you can do for your country.” A call to service, action, and dedication to a purpose higher than self.

The opening story of this week’s parsha happens three days after Avraham entered a covenant with G-d through circumcision. At the advanced age of ninety-nine, G-d communicated to him the mitzvah of Bris Milah, which he observed without hesitation.

Following such a procedure it’s only natural to feel weak and ill, and the third day is the worst of all. G-d arranged for scorching weather to keep travelers off the road and away from Avraham’s hospitality tent, so he could rest and recuperate from the circumcision. 

But hospitality wasn’t just Avraham’s day job - it was a Mitzvah and his life mission. His greatest joy and pleasure was to welcome in weary travelers, seat them in the shade of his beautiful orchard and serve them the choicest delicacies. It was all done for free with the sole purpose of inspiring them to thank the creator of all things, Al-mighty G-d, for the food they ate and thus bringing the awareness of divine truth to a heathen world.

Instead of resting in bed as his hotel remained empty due to the unbearable heat, Avraham sat at the entrance of his tent on the lookout for some brave travelers to express his unbridled kindness. In this setting the Torah states “the L-rd appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot.”

G-d observes all the Mitzvot, so G-d visited Avraham - who was ill due to the circumcision - in observance of the Mitzvah of “Bikkur Cholim” - visiting the sick.

One can imagine what type of spiritual bliss such a revelation must have been for Avraham, but, shockingly, he never took his eyes off the road. Even while experiencing such an intense divine revelation he noticed three travelers approaching from a distance. He excused himself from G-d’s presence, ran to them and insisted they enter his tent to avail themselves of his hospitality.

Although these three men were really angels, they were disguised as heathens who served the dust of their feet as deities; the most pathetic of society at the time. Nevertheless, Avraham tore himself away from an unprecedented divine revelation to express kindness to the scourge of humanity in keeping with his life mission.

This is what a covenant with G-d is all about. The ability to rise above our own needs and desires - even if they may be of the most elevated spiritual nature - to do what is expected of us in making our world a better place for all. Be like Avraham and never allow anything to stand in the way of a Mitzvah that needs to be done now.

Control Your Situation

Several weeks ago I was dining in the Sukkah with friends when one of them shared that he reads Torah teachings from the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks every week. As the conversation continued, I shared with them a story I heard from Rabbi Sacks at the International Chabad Conference over ten years ago. (Watch it here: chabadelpaso.com/1690783)

As a college student at Cambridge in the 1960s he traveled to the US during his summer break to meet with influential Jewish leaders at the time, including the Rebbe. After he concluded presenting his important questions during that late-night meeting, the Rebbe started asking him questions.

“What are you doing to enhance Jewish life at Cambridge?”

The young Sacks was astonished, as at the time he was not exactly the prototype of a traditional Jewish activist and he tried to politely extricate himself from the question.

“In the situation in which I find myself in…”

The Rebbe stopped him mid-sentence and said, “Noone finds themselves in a situation. You put yourself into a situation. And if you put yourself in one situation you can put yourself in another situation.”

“That moment changed my life,” said Rabbi Sacks at the convention 50 years later. The rest is history.

This week’s parsha opens with the first recorded communication between G-d and Avraham the first Jew. “Go forth from your land, your birthplace and your father’s home, and travel to the land I will show you.”

Here are a few questions on this seemingly simple instruction. Why are there so many adjectives to describe the place he was moving away from? Why does G-d not tell Avraham his destination? Most importantly, why is this the first recorded communication between G-d and the man who initiated the most important monotheistic revolution in history?

The key to being G-d’s ambassador to bring more goodness and light to the world is to realize that you are in control of your situation. Regardless of your nature, habits or familial attitudes, you can elevate yourself from it all and devote yourself to G-d’s cause; a cause greater than yourself. And when you do so, your destination will be something far greater than you can ever imagine right now. You will accomplish things you could have never dreamed of.

All it takes is to make the move. Commit yourself to a new mitzvah, set aside time to learn more Torah and follow the inspiration as it elevates you, your family and everyone around you to  a better and more wholesome place.

You’re not as lonely as it may seem

Being the good kid in a class of rowdy students can be demoralizing, depressing and lonesome. Trying to focus on excelling academically while everyone around you is having a good time is not a good recipe to thrive socially, but eventually pays off down the line.

The opening verse of this week’s parsha gives the following introduction of Noach. “Noach was a righteous and perfect man - in his generation.” In addition to calling Noach a good guy, the Torah makes note that despite the fact his generation was so appallingly corrupt, he managed to remain righteous. Why is it so important for the Torah to emphasize how lonely Noach was in his morality?

When G-d decided to destroy the world and save only Noach’s family and representatives of each animal species, He gave him 120 years to build a massive ark according to divine instruction. There was no Home Depot to purchase supplies from, nor a massive hangar in which he could build his boat-house in relative privacy. Every step of the process, from planting trees for lumber to actually constructing the unprecedented monstrosity happened in full view of the people around him and news of it reached everyone alive at the time.

He explained to them that the destruction of the world was imminent because of their behavior, and by improving themselves G-d’s decree could be averted, but they were beyond all hope of rehabilitation that all his warnings fell on deaf ears. No one took him seriously and his isolation only intensified.

Other than his three sons, Noach had no companionship at all. Nevertheless he persisted and the world was rebuilt after the devastation of the flood because of his courage and faith.

Noach’s loneliness serves as an empowering lesson for us today.

Often, doing the right thing can feel lonely. Eating Kosher food from takeout containers while everyone else at the conference dines on real china and cutlery; standing in a packed airport terminal wrapped in a Tallit and Tefillin reciting prayers for several minutes, or electing to skip an important sports game together with friends because it’s happening on Friday night. I’m sure you can find many other examples of how a Jew can feel lonely in a crowd, but Noach teaches us how to courageously swim against the current and be confident in the advantage of doing the right thing, even if it's unpopular. 

Unlike Noach who truly stuck out as one singular sore thumb amongst all his peers, a Jew is never truly lonely. We are part of a community of millions and the latest link in a glorious chain of many generations that did the same. We are certainly the minority, but when it comes to doing the right thing, numbers never matter.

On the contrary. Just as Noach weathered the storm of social isolation to preside over a new and refreshed world, the time is imminent when the light of Torah will inspire all humanity to live in true peace and tranquility with the arrival of Moshiach.

 

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