Let's keep in touch!
Want to keep in the loop on the latest happenings at Chabad Lubavitch. Subscribe to our mailing list below. We'll send you information that is fresh, relevant, and important to you and our local community.
Printed from ChabadElPaso.com

Rabbis' Blog

Inspirational Torah Messages from Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso

When Contradictions Make Sense

Contradictions are annoying in real life and may be acceptable in the realm of dreams, but there are some contradictions that are entirely implausible to show up even in our wildest imaginations.

In this week’s parsha we learn of two dreams that disturbed Pharaoh’s royal slumber. Seven fat cows emerged from the Nile followed by seven scrawny cows and after standing together, the seven thin cows devoured the fat cows without growing in size.

In his second dream he saw seven healthy, good looking ears of grain growing on a single stalk. Seven gaunt and parched ears of grain sprouted after them and proceeded to swallow the healthy ears of grain without changing at all.

Royally agitated, Pharaoh called for the wise men of Egypt for explanation, rejected their interpretation and became increasingly angry and desperate to discover the truth. Finally, the royal butler informed him of the Hebrew slave languishing in prison who was an accomplished dream interpreter and Pharaoh sent for Yosef at once.

Yosef explained that the seven fat cows and good looking ears of grain represent years of plenty and the seven scrawny cows and gaunt ears of grain refer to seven years of famine.The purpose of the vision was so that Pharaoh prepare for the famine years by storing away the enormous surplus of the years of plenty in a responsible manner to provide for the terrible famine years to come.

Satisfied, Pharaoh immediately freed Yosef from servitude and appointed him viceroy of Egypt, granting him absolute control over his nation to implement the fourteen year plan for saving Egypt and the rest of civilization.

Yosef’s interpretation was so elementary and simple, it is shocking that the wise men of Egypt could not think of it on their own? Did they really need the services of a Hebrew slave?

One detail of the dreams confounded the Egyptian wise men: the fact that the seven healthy cows stood together with the seven scrawny cows. They initially understood that the groups of cows refer to years of plenty and famine respectively, but failed to comprehend how they could stand together. Years of plenty and years of famine happening together at the same time is an impossibility even in the most wildest of imaginations!

Yosef explained that Pharaoh’s dream was not merely a product of his imagination, but a divine message. During the years of plenty Egypt must prepare intensively for the upcoming famine by storing the surplus instead of indulging in it so that the extra food will save them during the years of famine. In this way, the years of famine are the national focus during the years of plenty and the years of plenty continue to impact the seven year famine.

Whereas contradictions may confound conventional minds and even our imaginations, G-d teaches us how two opposites can thrive in tandem. While logic dictates that Torah and Mitzvos cannot survive, let alone thrive outside the metaphorical ghetto, the opposite is true. In the spirit of Chanukah, just as light is not intimidated by darkness, the truth of Torah need not be compromised to impact the entire world.

 

One Small Interaction Saved the Entire World

Some people are resiliently pleasant. Regardless of the situation they somehow manage to remain sensitive and caring for others. And as amazing as life can be, it is specifically the simple but sensitive action one does at the worst of times that can be the catalyst for the greatest success.

In this week’s parsha we learn how Yosef, the eleventh son of Yaakov, experienced the most horrendous humiliations a human could endure. He was sold as a common slave by his own brothers, lived alone in a foreign land with no communication with his family and finally, was framed for a crime he never committed and sentenced to prison indefinitely.

During this time period the royal butler and baker sinned to Pharaoh. They were removed from their positions and imprisoned in the same dungeon as Yosef pending trial. The warden trusted Yosef blindly and appointed him to attend to the needs of these royal prisoners.

One night, the two of them had troubling dreams and in the morning they were both miserable. When Yosef entered their quarters he noticed their sadness and asked them “Why are your faces so downcast today?”

It’s important to appreciate the novelty of Yosef’s inquiry. Firstly, must deposed ministers have a good reason to look miserable after spending a full year in prison? Of course they were downcast! Something else needs to happen to warrant their rotten moods?

But the fact that Yosef even noticed their moods and tried to help them is even more intriguing. One who had experienced even a fraction of the abuse Yosef had endured would be bitter and angry with the universe. Personal tragedy is considered the best license to become self-absorbed and disinterested in the misfortune of others.

Everything Yosef had learned from his father Yaakov came to life in this simple interaction. Instead of succumbing to the natural temptation of wallowing in his own misery, he exemplified the truth of Torah - the ironclad belief that G-d is in control of everything and the fact that he was in the dungeon on that morning was an indicator that he was there to help others.

This simple gesture of human kindness led to Yosef’s ultimate release, his rise to global power and his ability to save the world from a devastating famine. (I don’t want to spoil the story for you. We’ll learn it in next week’s parsha. :))

The message is simple and clear. Never underestimate the power of a single good deed. This one mitzvah may be the one bring change to your life and to the entire world. In the spirit of Chanukah - one single candle of light can be the one to banish all darkness forever with the ultimate redemption through Moshiach.

Loving What You Do Instead of Doing What You Love

You know those lucky people that love their jobs? It’s really special to land a career in a field that you enjoy and to work in a pleasant atmosphere with awesome colleagues.

But it does not always work out that way. When push comes to shove, bills need to be paid and we are often forced to do many things we don’t care for and certainly don’t enjoy.

In this week’s parsha we learn of Yaakov’s return to his homeland and his encounter with his brother Eisav. When his messengers reported that Eisav was marching towards him with 400 mercenaries to destroy his family, Yaakov became frightened and distressed.

Although he had no interest in what lay ahead, he prepared for the inevitable encounter in three ways. He sent Eisav a gift of several herds of animals to appease him, prayed to G-d and prepared his camp for battle.

Engaging in each of these three preparations were unappealing to Yaakov.

The gift: Eisav certainly did not deserve the lavish gift he was receiving. Both understood Eisav’s vengeful anger and murderous intentions were misplaced and childish. But Yaakov tried to appease him nonetheless.

Prayer: Out of his extreme humility, Yaakov felt he was unworthy of experiencing a miraculous salvation from his current predicament, so he was forced to invoke the merits of his forefathers in his prayer. It was out of character, but he did so under the circumstances.

War: Yaakov was frightened that an armed conflict would cause considerable damage to his family and was equally distressed that he would need to kill his enemies. Either outcome to the battle was repugnant to Yaakov, but he created a war strategy as a last resort.

Yaakov’s real-life story from thousands of years ago reflects a truth pertinent today as ever. Not always do we have the luxury to do only things we like doing. We are obligated to do what needs to get done; like it or not. But the real blessing is to learn to love doing that which must be done. It takes maturity and discipline, but the results are priceless.

The same could be said about our Jewish obligations. Even though not every mitzvah is initially exciting, and the holidays may occur on a very inconvenient schedule we have the ability to grow in our appreciation for every detail of Judaism.

The teachings of Chassidus reveal the pleasant depth of Torah and pave the way for living life meaningfully and joyfully. This week we celebrate Yud Tes Kislev, the 220th anniversary of the redemption of the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad) from Czarist imprisonment.

I encourage you to explore the depths of his teachings and enjoy the clarity they provide in all areas of life. Click here to learn more about the Alter Rebbe, Chassidus and Yud Tes Kislev.

 

Travel Buddies

 

Seasoned travelers can advise that aside for preparing a proper itinerary and accomodations, the pleasure of a trip may often depend on your travel companion. You can have a terrible flight experience, with hour long delays and misplaced luggage, but if you are traveling with your best friend or a loved one, that trip may very well be remembered as cherished quality time.

 

In this week’s parsha we learn of Yaakov’s harrowing escape from his brother Eisav’s murderous rage. Although Eisav had not uttered a word of his intentions to anyone, their mother Rivkah prophetically understood that he was out for blood and instructed Yaakov to flee eastward to her brother Lavan who lived in the distant land of Charan.

While his destination would serve as a secure physical haven from his brother Eisav, being in the vicinity of Lavan came with profound risks. Lavan was a merciless swindler and when it came to the moment of truth, he was prepared to murder Yaakov and his family. Only a direct warning from G-d dissuaded him from wiping out the fledgling Jewish family.

Yaakov was traveling from a a terrible situation to a place he would never choose to visit under normal circumstances. To make matters worse, Eisav dispatched his son Elifaz to kill him, but Yaakov managed to convince him to strip him of all his possessions instead, thus arriving in Charan destitute.

It would only make sense that his journey would be fraught with tension and fear. But the Torah relates that after spending a night on Mt. Moriah, the location of the future Holy Temple, “Light of foot, Yaakov set out for the land of the people of the east.”

Yaakov was enthusiastic and optimistic as he journeyed from his murderous brother his deceitful uncle. Why?

While he slept on Mt. Moriah, Yaakov dreamt of angels going up and down a ladder positioned on earth that reached the heavens. In the dream G-d spoke to him and reiterated His promise to Avraham and Yitzchak that their children will inherit the Holy Land and achieve historic greatness. Amongst the many detailed blessings Yaakov received in that dream, perhaps it was these words that fueled his enthusiasm that made him light of foot on his otherwise harrowing journey: “Behold, I (G-d) am with you.”

Once Yaakov knew that he had the best travel companion possible, the turbulent journey became another element of the cherished quality time he would spend with G-d, elevating even the most depraved civilizations of the time, so that Charan would also become a place where divinity was more revealed.

We all have our personal journey through life with a unique mission and purpose in preparing our world for the era of Moshiach. Remember G-d is your travel companion and every moment of life will be a joy.

The Camouflaged Jew

 

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of participating in the banquet of the annual Chabad Lubavitch Convention of Shluchim (Emissaries). Close to 4,000 Shluchim, 2,000 supporters and guests as well as tens of thousands of online viewers celebrated the Rebbe’s impact on global Jewry and humanity.

While crowds and buildings are necessary and attractive, the focus of the evening was on the stories of personal impact. The genuine interactions that bring hope and inspire change.

Rabbi Motti Flikshtein shared with the crowd that as a child, known as Matt, he had zero Jewish education. As a teen he fell in with the wrong crowds and was a gangster, high on drugs, rapping in bars every night.

Life was spiralling out of control and his parents begged him to visit the local Chabad House. Matt was sure that he would be thrown out of the building just for the way he dressed, but when he arrived, Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein greeted him with a smile and a hug and told him how happy he was that he chose to participate that evening.

One Mitzvah led to another, one Torah lesson led to another and today Matt, now Motti, is a Shliach himself, sharing the beauty of Torah with fellow Jews in Delaware.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the epic struggle between the first twins discussed in the Torah, Yaakov and Eisav. Polar opposites in every way, Eisav was hairy from birth and Yaakov remained smooth skinned into adulthood. Yaakov was immersed in Torah study, while Eisav roamed the countryside killing and raping at whim. He masterfully hid his true character from his father, but his mother Rivkah was well aware of his depravity.

When Yitzchak became blind of old age and felt his final days approaching he wished to pass on the powerful blessings of destiny to his progeny, and since Eisav was born first, he seemingly deserved to receive them. Yitzchok was unaware that Eisav had sold his birthright to Yaakov for some lentil soup when he was 15 years old. Rivkah was aware of the transaction and also understood that Eisav would wreak havoc on society if he were to possess such spiritual energy.

She instructed Yaakov to enter Yitzchok’s room instead of Eisav camouflaging his arms with goat skins. Feeling the hairy arms, Yitzchok was sufficiently convinced Eisav was standing before him and bestowed upon the camouflaged Yaakov the greatest blessings ever uttered by man.

Why was it necessary for Yaakov to be blessed while camouflaged as Eisav? Could Rivkah not have convinced Yitzchok that Yaakov was the right recipient by sharing the facts on the ground?

Rivkah understood that in the future some of Yaakov’s descendants will don the camouflage of Eisav - they will be indistinguishable from their gentile neighbors - often at no fault of their own. Yet even they are the progeny of Yaakov, endowed with unmatched spiritual energy - equal partners in the ultimate task of making this world a divine space of goodness and kindness.

Although Matt looked like a thug, Rabbi Weinstein was able to tap into the beautiful neshama within. Even a “Yaakov” that looks and feels like “Eisav” has the ability and obligation to change the world for good.

 

We Are All Responders

 TTC Chayei Sarah.jpg

This past week was painful. Shabbat morning, on my way to Shul for services, I was already notified by a neighbor that a tragedy struck in Pittsburgh, but nothing could prepare me for the devastating details of what has since been called the worst attack on Jews on American soil in history.

In one of my numerous discussions this week I was asked if all of the outpouring of love and support will have any impact on the bad people. Will it help stop them from doing such things in the future?

Far from doubting the value of genuine good human response to tragedy, the questioner was expressing a deep concern: If bad people do bad things shouldn't our energies be focused on battling the bad? What's the practical value of all the love in terms of deterrent?

Risking being cliche I reflected on the fact that we deal with darkness by lighting a candle. Why not negotiate with the darkness? Perhaps we should try transforming darkness by force?

The answer is that darkness does not negotiate and it is unaffected by condemnation. The only practical response to darkness is bringing new light - one candle at a time.

But is it really true that one good deed can make a difference in our lives and in the entire world?

In this week's parsha we learn of the expedition to find a suitable match for Yitzchok.

Avraham charged his devoted servant Eliezer with the mission to bring a woman from his family in Charan back to Israel. Together with a caravan of ten loaded camels he miraculously arrived in Charan on the same day he left and settled down next to the well.

He had idea where to find the mystery girl so he made a deal with G-d. When the girls of the town come out to draw water from the well, he will ask them for a sip from their jugs. Whoever will graciously hydrate him and his camels will certainly be the right one for Yitzchok.

Rivka was the only modest girl in the region of idolatry and promiscuity. The proverbial rose among the thorns, she deserved to thrive in an environment more conducive to her noble character. That evening she went out to the well as usual, and when an old stranger asked for a simple sip of water from her jug, she graciously offered it.

She probably did not think much of it and it was certainly not a difficult favor to do for a stranger.

But this simple act of kindness caused a trajectory in her life and in human history. She was invited to live in Avraham's home and became the next link in the glorious chain of Judaism.

One simple act of kindness changed the world forever.

When tragedy strikes there is a select group of first responders called upon to make a practical difference in real time. And when news of the tragedy spreads to the entire world bringing with it devastating darkness, we are all called upon to respond.

Certainly we must take appropriate measures to ensure safety and deterrence, but generating more light is the fulfillment of our mission here on earth. 

Your one single mitzvah can be the pivotal one needed to tip the scales of destiny to usher in the glorious era of redemption when grief, tragedy and tears will be wiped away forever.

Please consider joining thousands of people increasing their mitzvot in honor of Pittsburgh. Click here to join the movement.

When it Makes No Sense

We all know that the Jewish journey through history has had its ups and downs. Extraordinary episodes of men, women and children who courageously lived as Jews and died as Jews. When called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for our heritage they did so proudly.

In this week’s parsha we learn of a dramatic event that became a cornerstone of Jewish identity. When G-d requested of Avraham to offer his only son Yitzchok as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah he responded without hesitation. Fully aware of the consequences of such an endeavor, the 137 year old Avraham and the 37 year old Yitzchok marched confidently to fulfill G-d’s desire.

It was a test of epic proportions: Avraham to sacrifice his only son and Yitzchok to sacrifice his life. At the final moment, an angel of G-d stopped Avraham in the act and explained that the request was only that Yitzchok be offered on the alter, not that he be slaughtered.

The event of the “Akeida” is considered the epitome of Avraham’s divine service and the final proof G-d needed to confirm the fact that Avraham was altruistically dedicated to Him. The “Akeida” is so foundational to Judaism, that all 19 verses of the recorded story in the Torah form the permanent opening of our daily prayer liturgy.

This is perplexing, especially since Jewish history is unfortunately filled with stories of much greater sacrifice. During the Chanukah era a woman named Chana was forced to see all her seven sons murdered because they refused to acknowledge idolatry. And if you think about it, Avraham heard the request directly from G-d whereas millions of Jewish martyrs throughout history received no such divine communication. Does their sacrifice not seem nobler?

Even if Avraham deserves the credit for being first, he had already displayed his preparedness to sacrifice his life for G-d when he was thrown into a fiery furnace in “Ur Kasdim” for refusing to obey King Nimrod’s command to serve idols. What was unique about the sacrifice Avraham displayed by the Akeida that was missing in “Ur Kasdim?”

Martyrdom can make sense. When thoroughly convinced of the truth of an ideology, one can rationalize that a life of hypocrisy and falsehood is not worth living, or even logically conclude that dying for the cause can be the greatest asset for the cause. Not all sacrifice is necessarily altruistic.

The Akeida was different. There was nothing to be accomplished by Avraham slaughtering his son Yitzchak. Quite the contrary. Not only was noone there to witness it, it was the exact opposite of Avraham’s philosophy against the heathen practice of human sacrifice. Besides, with Yitzchak gone there will certainly be no continuity to Avraham’s lifelong work. This is why the Akeida was so special. It made absolutely no sense and Avraham’s unwavering readiness to obey confirmed his altruistic commitment to G-d.

We read about the “Akeida” every day in our prayers since we are constantly called upon to make sacrifices to live Jewishly. Avraham and Yitzchok bequeathed to us the natural ability to serve G-d altruistically, even when it makes no logical sense - so long as we choose to do so. 

Here is How I Measure Success

 success.jpg

I was recently asked by several friends, in separate conversations, how I measure my success in my mission as a Chabad rabbi. “Is your goal to have a large synagogue filled with congregants? When will you be satisfied with your work?” The questions were posed in distinct contexts, necessitating my responses to differ in articulation but remain the same at its core.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the adventures of Avraham, the first Jew. What is striking about the Torah narrative about this fascinating and most consequential figure is that it begins when he is 75 years old. Other than the fact that he was born to Terach and married Sarai, the Torah devotes zero space to the accomplishments of his youth up until he was well in his seventies.

Clearly, while every word in the Torah is a literal description of what occurred, its purpose is not to be a historical record. Thousands of stories and details of our rich history were transmitted through tradition and later recorded in the Talmud and Midrash. The word “Torah” is etymologically linked to the word “Hora’ah” which means “lesson” or “instruction.” It follows that historical details recorded clearly in the Torah serve as a lesson for all time.

In our case, what can be the purpose of the Torah opening the narrative of Avraham’s unique relationship with G-d at the point of “Lech Lecha” when he is already advanced in age, disregarding the fascinating story of how he discovered G-d and courageously sanctified His name against the most powerful leaders of the time?

Avraham’s heroic exploits prior to “Lech Lecha” were his own initiative. He recognized the fallacy of idolatry and the truth of the Creator on his own, and began promoting this ideology without prompting or direction from Above.

At age 75 Avraham experienced something new. He was commanded by G-d to do something - and he obeyed. To travel away from his homeland, birthplace, and family to a land of G-d’s choice. This challenge certainly pales in comparison to risking his life for his beliefs, but this was the first time he strengthened his relationship with G-d on G-d’s terms.

By opening the history of Avraham at the point where his behavior is based on divine instruction, the Torah teaches us the core of our relationship with G-d and our ability to change the world: Follow His instructions carefully and great things will happen.

This is the template I try to use when measuring meaningful success. G-d’s instructions are clearly articulated in the Code of Jewish Law and in the vast corpus of Torah literature and if my day resembles the model found therein - I can take that to the bank.

Of course we have an ambitious vision for the future of the local Jewish community. But it is the day-to-day interactions and mitzvot that happen as a result that define our success. Providing a fellow Jew the opportunity to wear Tefillin, learning Torah for ten minutes with someone or inspiring a child to give some charity are the small things that make every day a huge success. Because these are the things G-d wants - and our greatest gift is the ability to get them done.

 

Here’s How to Inspire People to Change

 preach.jpg

It's frustrating to see others make wrong choices and even worse when they ignore good critique and advice for the future. Many well intentioned preachers fail to inspire and the question is: why?

This week's parsha opens with G-d notifying Noach that the corrupt society he lived in would be destroyed in an epic flood and that he will father a new world. To save himself, he is instructed to build a box-like boat large enough for his family, a pair of every animal species and provisions to last one year.

Noach got to work without delay. After all, it's not every day G-d provides you detailed building plans and articulates how much is at stake. Yet, despite the urgency, the construction project lasted for 120 years!

Everyone involved in construction knows that rarely is a project finished ahead of schedule. But 120 years seems to be an exaggeration by any stretch. What took so long?

Building the Ark was an instruction given exclusively to Noach. He alone prepared the materials and single handedly constructed the mammoth ship. G-d made it a solo project so that it be prolonged and drawn out in order to attract the attention of humanity. Every day that Noach labored over the strange box people inquired about it and he shared G-d’s message of impending doom - hoping they would change their ways.

The Ark’s century-long construction was the grandest advertisement of G-d’s intentions for the future and the loudest wake up call for humanity to repent. But alas, Noach’s warnings fell on deaf ears, the Great Flood became a reality and all was lost.

Over a thousand years later, Moshe faced a similar scenario. The Israelites had sinned with the Golden Calf and G-d decreed their complete annihilation. Unlike Noach in his time, Moshe effectively inspired the Israelites to repentance and successfully convinced G-d to rescind the terrible decree.

Why did Moshe succeed and Noach fail?

Moshe selflessly cared for the Jewish nation to the point that he boldly declared “If You (G-d) plan to destroy them, it will be over my dead body!” So when he admonished them for sinning it was not in order to fulfill his obligation to G-d but because he truly cared for their physical and spiritual welfare.

Noach, on the other hand, obediently constructed the Ark and warned his generation as an expression of his devotion to G-d, but not because he truly cared about his listeners.

The historical contrast between Noach and Moshe provides a crystal clear perspective on how to effectively inspire people to be better: Truly care for them. Work hard to find the right words and methods to get your message across. And if all else fails, say a genuine prayer on their behalf.

Because no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

 

Playing by the Game Rules

board game.jpg

My daughter received a board game as a gift over the holidays. She excitedly opened the package and immediately started reading the game rules.

“Why don’t you make up your own rules?” I asked her.

She rolled her eyes at me. “It doesn’t work that way, Totty! The game is only fun when you play the way the game makers decided. Otherwise, the board and pieces won’t make any sense!”

I couldn't argue with that.

This week we completed a full cycle of learning Torah and started from the beginning. Reading the opening words of the Torah describing creation an obvious question presents itself. Why must we learn about creation in a book meant to be a guidebook to Jewish life?

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the 12th century sage popularly known as “Rashi,” wrote a commentary on the Torah which has been unanimously accepted as the gold standard of understanding the original Torah text for many centuries.

In his opening entry Rashi goes so far as to suggest that the first thirteen portions of the Torah are seemingly inconsistent with the purpose of the Torah as a Jewish code of law.

Here is how he answers this fundamental question:

For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they (Israel) will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper. When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

Rashi lived in medieval France in the era of the Crusades. There was no Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel at the time and the typical five year old child studying Torah was unlikely to encounter this condemnation throughout his lifetime. So how is this explanation relevant?

Because the premise of the argument over Israel's ownership appears in many formats. Why is one day a week different from the rest? Why is this food permitted to some and forbidden to others?

Starting the narrative at Genesis helps circumvent 99% of the frustrations the Torah student will inevitably have. Why are the rules so invasive? Why are there instructions for every detail of life? Must I really follow standards that make no sense to me?

At the very beginning of G-d’s communication to humanity He presents His credentials and frames the Torah for what it truly is. As the Creator, He is gifting us the opportunity to live according to the standards found in the blueprint of the universe.

Like playing the game by the rules.

When understood properly and presented appropriately, this perspective will resonate not only in our private lives but on the geopolitical stage as well.

Leap Forward. You Can!

 

Once upon a time a king lived in a castle surrounded by a moat filled with alligators. One day he invited the citizens of his kingdom to the castle, promising them a spectacular show.

“Whoever will swim across the moat and reach the other side alive can choose to have either half the royal treasury or my daughter's hand in marriage!”

The offer was quite generous but the stakes could not be higher. Jumping into the moat was certain suicide!

After several tense minutes, there was a loud splash as one man started swimming frantically across the moat. The dumbstruck crowd watched the display of bravery bordering on lunacy and as the daring swimmer reached the other side broke out into thunderous cheers.

“Bravo!” the king cried. “Which prize will you choose? Do you want the money?”

“No!”

“Do you want to marry the princess?”

“No!”

Befuddled the king asked, “So what do you want as a reward?”

“To find out who pushed me in!”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allow us to experience a spiritual high and many feel the urge to become better people and more committed Jews. But then comes the day after. Returning to the routine of life we can sometimes reexamine the resolutions we made during our moments of inspiration and start to doubt our ability to live up to them.

What now?

This Shabbat will mark the Yartzeit-Hilulo (anniversary of passing) of the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel, known as the Rebbe Maharash. Life in Czarist Russia in the late 1800s was a terrifying time of state sponsored pogroms against Jewish communities throughout the kingdom.

As the leader of the general Jewish community, the Rebbe spearheaded intensive efforts to revert the terrible decrees. He travelled extensively to meet with government officials and influential oligarchs to bring an end to the bloodshed and destruction.

He is quoted saying “The world believes that when faced with a challenge, if there is no way around it or under it - then you jump over it. I say that you should jump.over it from the onset - (in the original Hebrew-Yiddish) Lechatchila Ariber!”

This was his modus operandi during his lifetime and the eternal legacy he left for us all. No need to speculate on questions of ability and self worth. If you are presented with an opportunity to do good - go right ahead!

This brings perspective to the post High Holiday blues. Unsure if you are able to live up to all your commitments? Jump right in and start swimming. The alligators of failure are all in your head.

No time for second guessing because we have a collective mission to accomplish and success depends on every one of us.

 

Context is Everything

 

An important part of my monthly routine is visiting with fellow Jews serving time at the local federal prison for crimes they committed. During the hour we say some prayers with Tefillin, learn Torah, sing songs and have vibrant discussions.

Since the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Ten Days of Teshuvah the topic of our conversation was “Teshuvah.”

We quickly realized that translating the word “Teshuvah” as repentance causes various complications.

Repentance is defined as “deep sorrow, compunction, or contrition for a past sin, wrongdoing, or the like.” In that case, do perfect people have no connection with the “Ten Days of Teshuvah?” Or perhaps is the calendar implying that everyone is a sinner? Whatever happened to giving the benefit of the doubt?

This is another example of a profoundly empowering Jewish idea getting lost in translation. “Teshuvah” does not mean to repent. Rather the root of the word is “Shav” - return.

Once in conversation I was asked why some Jews are such hypocrites that they will pray in the synagogue three time a day and eat only Kosher, but behave terribly in business!

“What is the hypocrisy?” I prodded.

“If they are such thieves why do they bother praying?”

“Why do you consider their prayer and Kosher diet hypocrisy?” I countered. “Perhaps cheating in business is their hypocrisy?”

At the core, everyone is pure and wants to do the right thing. Circumstances and experiences may cause us to get distracted from staying true to our essence and lead us down a path of bad decisions. Certainly everyone is responsible for his or her actions, but those deficiencies can never define who we are. Our core remains the same.

This definition should not be taken for granted. In fact, when the Baal Shem Tov started teaching that Teshuvah is for everyone, he faced stiff resistance from the religious elite for insinuating that the scholars are guilty of sin. Their misunderstanding was the result of a lack of context for the role of Teshuvah and its power.

The verb of Teshuvah is not limited to sinners. Everyone needs to return to their pristine original selves. To reveal the essential connection with G-d not defined by behavior or claimed beliefs.

Now is the time to reveal that inner connection and find ways to access this purity throughout the  year. The good resolutions you make this week will be the vehicle through which the divine energy available now will be accessible every day of the coming year.

 

Tishrei: Bottoms Up!

Authors know that the right title can propel their books to the top of the bestseller lists or render them unreadable. Seasoned journalists will tell you that constructing the perfect headline can spell the difference between winning a Pulitzer or having another collection of 2000 words floating around on the internet.

This is true about all languages, but the power of words in the Torah context is a world unto its own. Lashon Hakodesh - the Holy Tongue - better known as Biblical Hebrew, is a divine language containing endless layers of meaning. Each word can be dissected in myriads of ways to reveal tremendously profound messages pertinent to our daily lives.

The month playing host to the many holidays on the horizon is called “Tishrei.” Just by analyzing the construct of the word, knowing just the Hebrew Alphabet nursery song, reveals the essential message of all four holidays celebrated within this month.

“Tishrei” is spelled with four letters. “Tav” - the last letter of the alphabet; “Shin” - the second to last; “Reish” - the third to last; and finally “Yud” - which is closer to the beginning of the order.

Now, imagine the Hebrew Alphabet in a vertical line. Spelling the word “Tishrei” would mean starting from the very bottom and consistently moving upwards. (A simple comparison in English would be spelling a word like this: ZYXJ.)

This is the theme of all the holidays we are about to celebrate: the obligation to move consistently upwards.

Our relationship with G-d is a two way street. On Pesach we celebrate G-d’s boundless love for us regardless of our spiritual status; we were redeemed from slavery despite our lack of merit. The direction is from above to below.

But Tishrei is from the bottom up. The holidays therein represent the human effort to reach for the divine.

The shrill cry of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah expresses our preparedness to submit to G-d’s kingship and behave accordingly. The atonement we achieve on Yom Kippur happens through our efforts to reach the core truth of our souls. During Sukkot we actively pursue an all encompassing unity with every Jew and Simchat Torah marks the completion of a yearly cycle of Torah study.

“Tishrei” is about orientation. True renewal can only happen when we reach for the very bottom and elevate it to the greatest heights.

Take Off Your Sunglasses

sunglasses-clog-pores-1.jpg

The season is changing. Everyone talks about the weather and I’ve heard people complain that they will miss the heat while others look forward to cooler weather.

We tend to change our wardrobe and certain habits with the season and, although El Paso is the “Sun City,” I expect to see less sunglasses around as we get more clouds and wind.

This week, while listening to the Rebbe’s pre Rosh Hashanah address from 1980, I discovered a fascinating correlation between removing sunglasses and Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the sixth day of creation when Adam, the first human being, was created 5,779 years ago. While the beginning of creation (five days earlier) is a worthy milestone to observe, the big deal revolves around Adam. Why?

Creator and Creation are opposites. The Creator is infinite and omnipresent, and Creation is finite and confined. In order for G-d to create our measured and perfect universe as we know it, it was necessary to shield creation from G-d’s brilliant infinity.

Here is an analogy we can easily relate to. The benefits we derive from the sun are obvious. Light and warmth are only the beginning of its impact on our lives. Yet, looking directly at the sun is dangerous and destructive. To get a better look at it we need to wear sunglasses to filter the brilliant sunlight so that our delicate eyeballs remain functional.

The same is true with creation. G-d desired a world where everything has a defined space and time. Only the finite hand of the human body can wear Tefillin and only the wool of a physical sheep can be used for the mitzvah of tzitzit. Therefore, the divine filter called “nature” shields the world from expiring into the infinite divine brilliance.

Here is the catch. Because we are born into this filtered universe and live with it all the time, it is easy to forget the truth behind the filter. It is possible to imagine that worldly matters can be a real impediment to serving G-d. Making a living may not jive with Shabbos observance, daily Torah study or giving Tzedaka generously and keeping Kosher may interfere with the ever important social scene.

Such a mindset is comparable to the guy with shades convincing himself that the sun is not so powerful after all and really has a dark tinge to it. Naive!

This is why Rosh Hashanah is observed on the day Adam was created. On that day, coming to his senses, he immediately perceived the truth and called upon every element of creation to crown G-d as King of the Universe. He saw past the ever present proverbial “sunglasses” and shared his knowledge with the world.

Next week, we, his descendents, are called upon to do the same. As we remove our sunglasses in anticipation for fall, let us commit this coming year to perceiving the truth of reality. Observe an extra Mitzvah, invest more time in Torah study, give more generously to Tzedakah and share the truth with everyone.

 

What I learned from the Military

 soldier.jpg

All things military can be fascinating. Air Force jets, tanks and battle gear can capture the imagination of kids and adults alike. Battleground heroism and patriotism are the stuff great stories have been made out of for ages.

War is horrible, but it is an inevitable part of reality so long there is fragmentation and competition in our world and the Torah in this week’s parsha sets forth the divine guidelines for a Jewish militia. Whereas these laws are unfortunately relevant in the literal sense, they are also metaphorically relatable to the personal and communal challenges we face on a daily basis.

In fact, when G-d redeemed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery they were referred to as Tzivot Hashem - G-d’s Army. Since the era marked the birth of the Jewish nation, their title reflected the fact that to accomplish their new a mission to the world, a military mindset is vital.

Here are two elements of army life that are necessary for Jewish success.

Obedience: Soldiers are trained to follow orders unquestioningly. This is not a cruel ploy to rob  human beings of their natural right to investigate and understand, rather it is a crucial ingredient to military success.

The foot soldier’s perspective of the battle is extremely limited. Only the commanders who are privy to the finest intelligence and real time updates of the entire front are capable of making the best strategic decisions. During battle there is no time for explanations and the soldier must follow orders first and ask questions much later.

The same is true in Judaism. When G-d offered the Torah to the Jewish people, the magical words of acceptance were “Naaseh Ve’nishma” - “We will observe the commandments (first) and we will understand their meaning (afterwards).” Once you become aware of a Mitzvah that needs to get done, do it! Rest assured that there is inspirational depth and flavor to it all, and with the proper investment of time and effort you will appreciate it all in due time.

Courage: Although soldiers are trained to follow orders, there are times when the realities on the ground call for flexibility, innovation and the courage to make important decisions instantaneously - all while carefully following military protocol and the rules of engagement. The specific tactics of how to accomplish the mission will inevitably change as the battle rages and such flexibility demands much courage.

As Jews, we fight a constant battle against assimilation. It can a personal challenge or a communal one. When unforeseen challenges and opportunities arise we need to have the courage and flexibility to adapt accordingly with speed - all while carefully following the protocol and rules of engagement as they are spelled out in the Shulchan Aruch - the Code of Jewish Law.

We’ve all been drafted 3,330 years ago. Let’s give this fight all we’ve got.

 

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.