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Rabbis' Blog

The Party No One Wanted To Miss

Sukkot is a festive holiday filled with special mitzvot and rituals. Dining in the Sukkah is always a highlight (even when the weather doesn’t cooperate!) and reciting the blessing over the Four Kinds evokes many special lessons about gratitude to G-d and Jewish unity.

The historic significance of the holiday and why it holds such a special place in the collective national Jewish memory is perhaps due to the unique celebration each year on Sukkot in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Each night of Sukkot there was an all-night party featuring the most exquisite orchestra, choir, dancers and jugglers. The greatest scholars and teachers of the nation danced and juggled the night away as thousands watched enthralled.

This annual week-long event was called “Simchat Beit Hashoeiva.” It was so intense that the Talmud declares “whoever did not witness Simchat Beit Hashoeiva - never witnessed true joy in life.” What was this party all about?

The daily service in the Holy Temple featured the wine libation. Specially prepared wine was poured on the altar as an offering to G-d. On Sukkot there was an additional water libation. Every morning water was drawn from a nearby spring and poured on the altar at the same time as the wine.

Sounds simple enough, but the Jews in Temple times took this water libation very seriously. So seriously, that the festivities started in midafternoon continuing through the night culminating with the ceremonious water-drawing at daybreak with much fanfare.

The party was not just the top-of-the-line entertainment of its time, it was mainly a spiritual event that caused many participants to become prophets as well. The closeness Jews felt with G-d during those joyous evenings was unmatched, indicating that the Sukkot water libation represents something important about our relationship with G-d.

Wine is sophisticated and valuable. There are many different types and some fetch a good price, but wine can go sour. It can enhance life and relationships but when abused can be the catalyst for real disasters. Water on the other hand is simple, unflavored, refreshing, available in abundance and never goes bad.

Judaism has both “wine” and “water” elements. We need to be intellectually and emotionally invested in Torah study and Mitzvah observance and derive pleasure and joy from Jewish living. But this track needs constant maintenance and preservation.

The core of our Jewishness must be simple and unchanging as water. The essential connection every Jew has with G-d regardless of their level of knowledge or observance never goes sour. The “water libation” in the Holy Temple on Sukkot highlighted this eternal connection and caused the epic celebration to escalate every night to unprecedented levels. Because knowing that we belong to G-d and the Jewish nation no matter what is the most exciting thing you can tell a Jew.

 

 

We need to reveal all the letters

In the early 1940s the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe sent a rabbi to meet with a philanthropist in Chicago who hailed from a well known Russian Chassidic hamlet. American life had caused him to abandon traditional practice, and the rabbi was instructed to speak with him only about Judaism and not to solicit nor accept any donations.

Towards the end of their conversations the philanthropist pulled out his checkbook and asked, “Who should I write the check to?”

“No one,” replied the rabbi to the man’s surprise. “I did not come here for your money.”

“Then why did you come?” he asked incredulously.

The rabbi responded with the following analogy. The holiest object in Judaism today is a Torah scroll. Every letter must be written precisely as dictated by our 3,000-year-old tradition and even one missing or faded letter renders a scroll illegitimate. In Eastern Europe religious scribes traveled from town to town offering their services to check the community Torahs to ensure all the letters were still intact.

The Jewish nation is compared to a Torah scroll and every Jew is another letter. Even one “faded” Jew impacts the entire nation. “I am like a traveling scribe,” concluded the rabbi. “My goal today is to ensure your “letter” is intact through strengthening your connection to Torah study and Mitzvah observance.”

Upon hearing this analogy the Previous Rebbe made one correction. Letters in the Torah scroll are ink on parchment and when a letter goes missing it ceases to exist. Jews are better compared to letters engraved in the Two Tablets. Engraved letters can fade due to accumulated dust that hides them from view, but they are never truly lost. You just need to clear away the dust and the letter will be revealed in all its beauty.

In this week’s parsha we learn about the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll. On the last day of Moshe’s earthly life, he wrote a scroll and gifted it to the Jewish nation as an eternal heritage and symbol of our unity. Here is how this all connects to the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

While Rosh Hashanah is called the Day of Judgement, forgiveness and atonement are absent from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. There is almost no mention of misbehavior, sins and remorse. The Yom Kippur liturgy, on the other hand, is all about confession, repentance and seeking forgiveness and yet the day is considered even holier than Rosh Hashanah!

Both holidays emphasize Jewish unity, but on Rosh Hashanah we access a level of our Jewishness that transcends the details of our behavior. We appreciate that we ultimately stem from the same source and our actions can never change who we are.

On Yom Kippur we reach a level of unity that emphasizes how even while dealing with the muck of ignorance, apathy and assimilation, every single Jew remains essential. Our nation is incomplete if even one letter is “faded.” And the incomparable holiness of Yom Kippur gives us the power to clean away all the “accumulated dust” and ensure that every Jew is connected in a revealed way.

 

Be Yourself

We had the pleasure of taking a family trip to New York this summer and thankfully the journey was fairly uneventful, all things considered. The kids managed with the masks for both flights and a nice play area in Dallas Love Field helped our three hour delay pass by cheerfully.

Flying to the East Coast is a full day event and in the many hours spent around so many strangers I could not help but admire how a kaleidoscope of humanity was so similar and so different. Everyone wore a mask, buckled their seatbelts for take-off and landing and headed to the same destination, but that’s where the commonalities ended.

Passengers spoke different languages, ate different foods and spent their flight doing different things. Some traveled for business while others headed home. Some were flying for good reasons and others for painful ones. But they were all in the same airplane adhering to the same flight rules.

In this week’s parsha we read about the Mitzvah of Bikkurim - the ultimate gratitude ritual. Every Jewish landowner in Israel was obligated to bring the first and best fruits from their orchard to the Holy Temple to be given to the Kohanim. Before handing the fruits to the Kohen the Jew would recite a powerful prayer of thanksgiving to G-d for the gift of life, health and prosperity in the Promised Land.

The list of fruits worthy of being brought as Bikkurim was limited to the five fruits the Torah defines as the beauty and praise of the Promised Land: figs, dates, grapes, olives and pomegranates. You’d think that to properly express gratitude to G-d you need to search the land for the best and most beautiful grapes or olives to be found in Israel to impress G-d with Bikkurim.

Not at all. Bikkurim was brought from the fruit that grew in your personal orchard, not the larger and juicier pomegranates or dates that may have grown in your neighbor's orchard. While everyone’s Bikkurim consisted of the same five fruits - the value of the fruits in comparison to others was irrelevant. They had to be the best of your orchard alone.

This detail provides us with a profound insight in Jewish observance and our relationship with G-d. While Mitzvot must be done in the same way by everyone, detail will inevitably vary and there is no competition about it. For example, on Sukkot only an Etrog fruit is used to make the blessing on the Four Kinds. A lemon or orange or any other fruit will not suffice. But the specific size, shape and color of the Etrog is not the issue and you are only expected to purchase an Etrog in accordance with your means.

We were all granted unique talents and abilities and the passion, excitement and devotion we invest in our Mitzvah observance is unique to every individual. Even while adhering to the same rules our relationship with G-d can be truly unique and special.

 

The advantageous type of war

After the Battle of Waterloo the Duke of Wellington famously said “The only thing worse than a battle lost is a battle won.” True, Napoleon had to be stopped, but a victory at the price of tens of thousands dead and maimed on both sides was nothing to feel proud about.

Wars are ugly and painful for the victor and vanquished and we hope and pray for a time when war will never happen again in the era of the final redemption through Moshiach. Until then war is inevitable and Torah provides guidelines for all aspects of war.

Thankfully there are times of peace and tranquility and even when a nation is at war the overwhelming majority of its citizens can continue living fairly peaceful lives. Does that render Torah war laws irrelevant during peacetime?

Even if the practical application of a Mitzvah may be limited to a specific time and space, the spirit of every Mitzvah is relevant to all people at all times and in all places. Even during times of peace there is much for us to learn from Torah’s attitude to war.

Doing the right thing is always a struggle, because G-d created us with two internal forces that influence our psyche. The Yetzer Tov (good inclination) is the agent of goodness, morality and divine service. This internal voice encourages us to better our world, help others, learn more Torah and observe more Mitzvot. This force is our ally.

The Yetzer Harah (evil inclination) is the agent of ego, self centeredness and corruption. This internal voice seeks to make us apathetic to divine truth and only care for what is beneficial for ourselves to the exclusion of all others. This force is our enemy.

The struggle between these two forces is ongoing and the victor is determined by us and a grammatical nuance in the opening words of this week’s parsha provide an important lesson in how to keep high morale in this life-long war.

“If you go out to war over your enemies and G-d will deliver them into your hands and you will take captives.” (Deuteronomy 21:10)

Unlike traditional wars where the outcome is uncertain at the outset, the Torah uses the words “over your enemies” instead of “with your enemies,” promising us that when following G-d’s instructions we can be certain of victory. Even when the going gets rough in the internal battle between good and evil, know that you are gifted with immeasurable moral and divine strength to win.

And unlike traditional wars where victor and vanquished both lose out, the victory of good over evil in our life-long internal battle is advantageous for everyone involved. So get into the fight with your head held high and win!

 

The Unplanned and Accidental

On Thursday I caught an unplanned ride with my brother back to New York City when a Jew living in a remote town in Alabama called him. This fellow’s brother lives in Wichita, KS  where my brother and his wife lead the local Chabad Center. Every week both brothers participate in his online Torah class and there are often follow questions and discussions by phone. My brother was preoccupied with driving so he handed me the phone and suggested I share some thoughts on the weekly Parsha with his friend from Alabama.

Happy to oblige we started chatting about the mitzvah of “Sanctuary Cities.” In parshat Shoftim the Israelites are commanded to dedicate special cities in the Land of Israel to serve as safe havens for anyone who killed another person accidentally. Even though the murder was unintentional, the fact that such a devastating tragedy occurred through him or her warrants an intense atonement through being displaced from home and forced to live in a sanctuary city.

Three sanctuary cities were designated on the western side of the Jordan River (mainland Israel) and three others were designated on the eastern side of the Jordan River - territory annexed to the Land of Israel even before the conquest. The Torah states that there will come a time in the future when G-d will broaden Israel’s borders to include three new territories. When that happens we are commanded to designate another three sanctuary cities in those territories for the same purpose.

Maimonides explains that Israel’s future expansion will occur in the era of Moshiach and concludes that the fact that the mitzvah of three additional sanctuary cities cannot be observed until the ultimate redemption proves the redemption will definitely happen. G-d would not give us a mitzvah that can never be fulfilled.

“How do we bring Moshiach?” my new friend from Alabama asked.

“Through doing another Mitzvah and learning more Torah,” I replied. We don’t know which Mitzvah will make it happen. We must view ourselves and the world as equally balanced between good and evil. Doing one good deed can tip the scale and bring redemption to yourself and the entire world.

But my unplanned and accidental conversation with the Jew from Alabama itself was illustrative of the unique connection between the mitzvah of sanctuary cities and Moshiach. The Chassidic masters taught us a rule that nothing happens by accident. You may have never planned to be someplace or meet someone but the circumstances that brought you together were pre planned before creation and have a purpose.

Sanctuary cities were created to help people who did terrible things by accident, and Moshiach will come when we utilize every “accident” or unplanned encounter for positivity. Be sure to have a Torah thought or inspiring story in mind to share with everyone and anyone you meet and turn every encounter into an opportunity for sharing and inspiration.

 

It’s about the regular stuff

The end of the year in any enterprise is a serious time. Whether it’s a business, school or government agency, every twelfth month there is an urgency in the air. Projects are due, accountings are expected and preparing for the new cycle brings with it an extra level of focus.

Judaism is the same and our annual month to account for the past and prepare our proposal for the future begins this Sunday at the start of the month of Elul. Gearing up to Rosh Hashanah, we add in our daily prayers and blow the Shofar every day (aside for Shabbat) reminding us of higher purpose and divine service. But strangely enough its daily routines are religiously no different than any other weekdays of the year.

Over 200 years ago Chabad Chassidic teachings introduced a powerful new perspective to the month of Elul in the guise of a story of a benevolent king typically ensconced in the palace surrounded by guards, servants and ministers. Gaining a royal audience is impossible for regular subjects and on the rare occasion someone is granted entry to the throne room, they must dress in special clothing and behave according to strict protocol.

Once a year the king wishes to meet the commoners on their turf. He dons peasant clothing and ventures out the fields alone, without the regular entourage of ministers and guards. It is there, sans the usual pomp and ceremony, that the king is in a marvelous mood and becomes accessible to all.

Different realities of our world can be defined as “palace” and “field.” Holy days and spaces are the “palaces” of G-d’s kingdom and the mundane regular times and spaces in our lives are the “fields.” Those “palace” days and spaces come with certain expectations and protocols and provide a context in which one feels more easily elevated and spiritual, whereas the “fields” are informal and devoid of accessible inspiration.

It’s only natural to feel more Jewish and fulfilled when praying in the synagogue on Shabbat than while sitting in standstill traffic on the way to work on a Tuesday morning. It’s easier to be aware of higher purpose when studying Torah than while running on the treadmill following doctor’s orders.

The month of Elul, with its paradoxical mundaneness and elevated spirituality, teaches us that our proposal for the next year must include more than just our commitment to increasing our synagogue attendance or adding to our Torah study schedule. We need to appreciate that even the mundane areas of life can and should be more G-dly and serve a higher purpose.

As in the story of the king, G-d wants to be present in our “fields” - in our regular daily routines - just as He is present in our “palaces” - our special holy days and spaces. Reflect on how everything in life is orchestrated from Above and how every encounter, event and enterprise can be the conduit for added goodness and meaning in our world.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet new year.

 

 

Reflections On My 60th Birthday

A newborn baby cries. It prefers to remain enveloped in the warmth and safety of the womb so the mother can eat, sleep and breathe on its behalf and doesn't want to be independent. But birth happens regardless, with all of the pain and joy associated with it, and the infant now plays an independent role in the world.

This Tuesday (25 Menachem Av) I celebrate my 60th birthday. I’m grateful to G-d for reaching this milestone and for the many blessings in my life, but I think it’s important to reflect on the meaning of a birthday beyond the celebration.

Jewish tradition refers to a birthday as a personal “Rosh Hashanah.” Just as humanity collectively commemorates the anniversary of Adam’s creation as a fresh start to a new year, every individual marks their own birthday as a refreshing beginning of something new and special. The day you received G-d’s mandate to make a unique impact on the world.

Similar to childbirth, independence is very painful but there is no greater joy than making a difference in your own unique way.

Sixty years ago I came to the world under frightening circumstances. My parents were trapped in Soviet Russia and their steadfast observance of Judaism placed them at high risk of being imprisoned at any moment and us children being whisked away to government foster homes. Miraculously we immigrated to Israel when I was 5 and I had the great fortune of having a proper Jewish education and spending many glorious years studying in Brooklyn in close proximity to the Rebbe. I was privileged to hear the Rebbe teach Torah for over 10 years and a central theme of his talks was about the importance of being a leader.

The definition of a leader is not limited to one who holds public office or leads a team of sorts. Every single human being, by dint of their individuality, is a de-facto leader with the ability to elevate, inspire and better their environment.

To celebrate past accomplishments is nice, but upon deeper reflection, the deeds of the past are insufficient and independence requires you to assume responsibility and take initiative. On a birthday one should reflect on the painful insufficiencies of the past, but be inspired and excited by the opportunities of the coming year, because true leaders think about the future and not the past.

Dear friends,

As I give thanks to G-d for 60 years of life I pray for another 60 years of continued health, happiness, growth and accomplishment. I request that you do the same on your birthday. Realize the potential you have as an individual in the world and reflect on ways you can make the world a better place. Increase in your Torah study and Mitzvah observance. Whether it’s religious observances like wrapping Tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles and eating kosher, or Mitzvot that promote goodness and kindness among people.

May G-d bless you with much physical, material and spiritual goodness and we should merit to welcome Moshiach who will usher in an era of true world peace and tranquility.

 

 

 

Feel Young Again

Shainy’s grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Karp was a venerable scholar who taught Talmud to generations of students, young and old. He was an extraordinary teacher and the recordings of his Talmud classes continue to attract a following over twenty years after his passing.

Once when one of his students was visiting him at home, a Jew who had recently immigrated from the Soviet Union arrived for his regular Hebrew reading session with Rabbi Karp. He never learned to read Hebrew in Communist Russia and was eager to make up for the lost opportunity.

The visiting student asked Rabbi Karp if it was really necessary for a sage of his caliber to tutor this gentleman in a subject even a child could teach. Pointing to the large Taludic tome on his table and then to the Hebrew Alphabet booklet, Rabbi Karp passionately answered, “This is Torah and this is Torah!”

In this week’s parsha Va’eschanan Moshe teaches the Jewish people the “Shema Yisrael.” The paragraph of six verses recited twice daily which serves as an essential meditation to keep us focused on our relationship with G-d.

Torah study is the foundation of this relationship and the “Shema” communicates this important mitzvah to us in a seemingly roundabout manner: “You shall teach them (the lessons of the Torah) thoroughly to your children.”

True, in order to teach Torah you must first study Torah yourself, but why could the “Shema” not simply state “You shall study Torah” and then add a few words about the importance of education? Even more perplexing, Maimonides and the Code of Jewish Law both begin the section about the laws of Torah study with the obligation to teach children before recording the details of one's personal study obligations. Doesn’t personal study come first?

Children are impressionable and open to new vistas. Capable of absorbing what they are taught without bias or agenda. They are curious, available and excited to learn new things. Torah study, at all ages and stages in life, must be the same. 

When studying the Hebrew Alphabet, at any age and stage in life, one must accept the information and learn how to conform with the ground rules of Hebrew reading. The same is true about all levels of Torah scholarship. Even Torah innovation has ground rules and parameters. Instead of forcing Torah to conform with our biases and agendas we must allow Torah to enlighten us and inform our worldview. As the famous Chassidic saying goes, “You studied Torah - but what did Torah teach you?”

Torah study can and should always be a youthful experience. Through surrendering yourself to the Torah lessons you learn, you’ll be uplifted, enlightened and inspired.

The relationship is real

After a 15 month break due to Covid we recently restarted Havdalah services at Chabad on Saturday nights 20 minutes after the conclusion of Shabbat. We pray evening services, recite Havdalah, sing a song and settle down with refreshments to watch the weekly segment of the Living Torah series with inspirational teachings and stories of the Rebbe produced by Jewish Educational Media.

Last week we watched a brief excerpt from an interview of a fellow who was struggling with his wife’s insistence to start keeping a kosher home and other Jewish practices. One evening he accompanied his wife to an audience with the Rebbe and asked the Rebbe in writing why G-d really cared if the dairy spoon mixed a pot of chicken soup. Does G-d really care about all the nitty-gritty details of Jewish observance? What’s all the angst about?

“I don’t understand your question,” the Rebbe responded. “Mitzvot are not for G-d. They are for us. So that we should be able to have a relationship with G-d.”

Here was a Jew annoyed about his Jewishness and uninterested in the whole concept of observance, and the Rebbe tells him that  by wrapping Tefillin and eating a kosher sandwich he will be nurturing his relationship with G-d, even before he studies the entire Torah and achieves spiritual greatness. Is it possible for your run-of-the-mill Jew to have a real relationship with G-d?

This week we begin learning the fifth book of the Torah “Devarim.” You will notice the genre is vastly different from the first four books of the Torah. While the others are written in third-person (“G-d spoke to Moses”) this one is written in first-person (“G-d spoke to me”).

The fact that every word in the Torah was transcribed by Moses through divine communication is foundational to Jewish  belief, but the change of tone in Devarim is symbolic of a profound aspect of our relationship with G-d.

Torah was given to bridge the truly insurmountable gap between mortal physical human beings and our creator. The first four books were written as a transparent divine communication that uplifts us from the mundane and physical experience, allowing us to experience spiritual transcendence. The fifth book speaks in the language of the human experience, signaling that a relationship with G-d can be achieved even while still entrenched in the mundane and ordinary physical experience.

Through wrapping Tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, eating kosher and giving charity you develop a real relationship with G-d despite your lack of spiritual feeling and experience. If you feel the same after doing a mitzvah, you’re still on the right track, because G-d is genuinely present in the human experience as well, not just in spiritual transcendence.

Saturday night and Sunday we will observe Tisha B’av - commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem around 2,000 years ago. The Holy Temple was a space where Jews experienced spiritual transcendence on a daily basis and since its destruction much of the spiritual pomp and ceremony of Judaism ceased.

Devarim teaches us however that  we continue to have a genuine and profound relationship with G-d even in our bleak and dreary exile. Even without feeling it, each time we do a mitzvah we prepare our world for an era of true global peace and tranquility, with the rebuilding of the Holy Temple through Moshiach, may it happen immediately.

When bad mistakes can be considered progress

It’s travel season and everyone flying domestically will tell you that Americans are traveling extensively this summer. Planning for trips is fun, but it’s the unexpected things that happen on the way that make them most memorable and meaningful.

My kids still talk about the time we got stuck in Vicksburg, Mississippi overnight due to a broken axle and the ten hours we sat in stand still traffic in the middle of Texas during the massive snow storm earlier this year.

These unexpected situations are caused either by external circumstances or clumsy errors, but in the end we often look back at them with appreciation.

In the second parsha we learn this week - “Masei” - Moshe describes the 40 year journey the Jewish people just concluded, starting with the exodus from Egypt culminating with their imminent arrival to the Land of Israel at the Jordan River. He records the 42 places the people encamped along the way and the mention of some of these places brings back some haunting and traumatizing memories.

The place where they complained about the heavenly food G-d sent them every morning and the site where the horrendous debacle of the spies that delayed their arrival in Israel by 39 years went down, just to mention two of them. Nevertheless, all of the encampments are called “journeys with which the Israelites left Egypt.” They were all part of a process of leaving Egypt and reaching the Promised Land.

How can the bitter memories of the Golden Calf or the Korach rebellion be integral to their epic desert journey to Israel? Are these encampments considered points of progress in the process of freedom from Egpytian slavery to settling in the Holy Land?

Here’s the catch. From the very beginning to the very end G-d was always with them. Even in the darkest moments of treason and heresy, the divine cloud representing G-d’s presence never left the Israelite camp. Because G-d’s covenant is eternal and even the gravest mistakes can be fixed, serving as the stepping stones for even greater and unanticipated spiritual growth and achievement.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that the life each individual experiences here and now is a spiritual microcosm of the itinerary of the Israelites’ desert journey over 3,000 years ago. The soul descends from heaven into the spiritual wilderness of this physical reality and is faced with the challenge of choosing right over wrong and good over evil, day in and day out.

Like our ancestors we stumble and falter, sometimes due to external factors and at times due to our own forced errors, but we must remember that G-d is always with us at every point of our journey, waiting patiently and lovingly for us to work through it all until we reach our ultimate goal. To prepare the world for the era of Moshiach when true peace and tranquility will reign for all, through increasing our Torah study and Mitzvah observance one step at a time.

What we can learn from talking parchment

I remember waiting in line for the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. It was a very long time ago and I have almost no recollection of Liberty Island itself, but the line to the ferry was memorable because two street entertainers did flips and somersaults which I thought were awesome.

In this week's parsha we learn how the Jews - on the threshold of inheriting the Promised Land - divided the land between each other in a dramatic public ceremony. The land was divided into 12 districts based on area-units of equal fertility. The names of the twelve tribes were written on 12 tickets and placed in a box and the 12 districts were written on 12 tickets and placed into a different box.

Elazar the High Priest was garbed in his priestly garments which included the miraculous breastplate with stones engraved with names of all the tribes. Looking at the Choshen, Elazar prophetically called out which tribe would choose which district. Then a prince from each tribe placed his hand in the box of tribal names and picked out the name of his tribe and then placed his hand in the box with districts and miraculously pulled out the district Elazar had just determined.

If that sounds amazing, here is what happened next: The ticket on which was written the inheritance miraculously spoke, saying, “I, the lot of such-and-such a region, have become the inheritance of such-and-such a tribe.”

Last week we read about a talking donkey and this week we discover that pieces of parchment spoke in front of the masses!

Why was it necessary for G-d to perform such a miracle to prove that their inheritance was fair? Was not Elazar’s prophecy and the dramatic lottery itself not sufficient to prove this point?

We have a tendency to regard preparations as technical distractions and try to rush through them to get to the point. I mostly skip book introductions, don’t enjoy preparing my own meals and get annoyed when waiting in line. But that’s what we do most of our life - prepare and wait.

Although the lottery was just a preparation for the inheritance of the Promised Land, it was such a dramatic and miraculous event to teach us that we need to focus on our preparations with the same attention and energy as we focus on our goals. Wherever you are at the moment, be there one hundred percent.

Today we live in a reality that is a preparation for something bigger and better. An era when there will be no suffering, jealousy, competition or strife. But as we live through the preparation for the wonderful era of Moshiach it’s crucial to appreciate that today’s reality is meaningful as well. We must engage in perfecting our imperfect world with the same gusto and relish  with which we will surely enjoy the beauty of the perfect world to come.

Dealing With Irrationality

All eyes are on Surfside, Florida. The horror that unfolded Wednesday night when a large portion of a beachside condominium building suddenly collapsed is unfathomable. 

On Thursday, Wolf Blitzer from CNN asked Rabbi Shalom Lipskar, Chabad rabbi in Bal Harbor on live television: “As a man of faith, how do you try to understand and explain something as horrific as this?”

“You can’t explain it, so let’s start from there,” Rabbi Lipskar answered. “There is no rationality for it…”

The rabbi described the situation as a surreal space with hundreds of people waiting for “the ultimate judgement” of life and death of their loved ones. “There is hope in the air, but it’s a strange kind of feeling.”

Perhaps the strangeness of the situation is partly due to the fact we don’t yet know if it was the result of bad actors or malicious intent. The victims did not intentionally walk into danger nor was there anything they could have done to protect themselves. I doubt the findings of a thorough investigation will inform us regular people how to be safer in the future and there is probably no known enemy to confront and stop from doing such things again.

While hundreds of rescue workers and local volunteers work around the clock to save lives and support the survivors and relatives, there is just confusion and sadness for the rest of us. Is there a way we can process this so that we are not paralyzed by fear of the unknown?

This week’s parsha records the story of how two evil anti-Semites sought to destroy the Jewish nation. Balak king of Moav hired the gentile prophet Bilaam to annihilate the Jews with a curse. Bilaam’s curses had destroyed mighty nations before and he was delighted to focus his deadly power on the people he hated most.

This was the only time the Jews were in mortal danger without knowing it. All other enemies confronted us directly and we dealt with them either through negotiations, battle or by praying for a miracle. But this time the Jews were oblivious to the problem and unaware of the great miracles that saved them.

This story teaches us there's alot going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about. Much more than we can control and manipulate on our own. Trust in G-d - known in Hebrew as bitachon - means realizing that even when we feel safe, secure and in control, it is G-d who is truly running the show. As we do our very best on a natural plane, we must always know that our success is in G-d’s hands.

As we grieve for the loss of so many and hope and pray for many miracles to come, don’t be paralyzed by fear of the unknown because G-d is with us every step of the way - even if it feels irrational. Light Shabbat candles before sunset to bring more light to a world that became darker this week. Be sure to have a kosher Mezuzah on your doorpost and have a dedicated charity box in your home for daily giving.

The good deeds we do consistently help us nurture a stronger trust in G-d so we can confidently move forward bringing more hope, light and joy to our world, preparing it for the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Irrational foundations that go a long way

I am privileged to welcome Aharon and Mendel to El Paso. They are rabbinical students at the Central Chabad Yeshiva in Brooklyn and they will be spending two weeks visiting Jews in the El Paso area. They are members of the “Roving Rabbis” summer program, the oldest Jewish outreach program in the world, established and organized by the Rebbe himself in the early 1940s.

The Rebbe insisted that rabbinical students immersed in Torah study and spiritual pursuits should set aside several weeks of the summer to travel to all parts of the world and bring the beauty of Judaism to Jews unable to meaningfully engage on a regular basis. Many flourishing communities and impressive dynasties today are the results of these summer trips.

On the surface it would seem counterintuitive to pull young men out of the Yeshiva setting and send them off to places like the Australian outback, rural America or tiny Pacific islands. While these visits certainly benefit the isolated communities or individuals, can one justify the students’ lost study time and spiritual growth?

There are different types of Mitzvot. Some would have probably become proper human behavior even without G-d commanding us to do them - like giving charity or not murdering. Others we do only because G-d commanded us to do them, but they make sense in hindsight - like eating Matzah on Passover to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt 3,333 years ago and to inspire us to see G-d's redemptive miracles in our lives today. And then there are Mitzvot that have no rational explanation - like most details of the kosher diet.

We joyfully accepted all 613 Mitzvot at Mt. Sinai and each one of them is integral to the beautiful tapestry of Judaism, but in this week’s parsha the Torah introduces the Mitzvah of the “Red Heifer” with an expression indicating that it has a foundational impact on our identity as Jews more than other Mitzvot.

In Judaism there is a concept of ritual purity and impurity that has nothing to do with hygiene or morality and good behavior. Simply put, G-d decreed there are certain circumstances that make a person unfit to enter certain holy places or partake of certain holy foods. The most severe form of ritual impurity happens when touching a corpse and the purification process includes dipping in a Mikvah and being sprinkled with water mixed with ashes of the Red Heifer.

Here is a fascinating detail of the Red Heifer procedure. While it has the power to purify someone from the most severe ritual impurity, all the ritually pure people involved in preparing it become ritually impure!

There is no way to rationalize this law, but it teaches us a tremendous lesson in life. The highest form of Jewish service and purpose is to willingly sacrifice your own spiritual perfection to help others in need. To dedicate precious time for the benefit of others at your own expense.

I wish Aharon and Mendel much success in their short but meaningful stay in El Paso. May we all learn from their example to focus our attention and energies on uplifting and inspiring our surroundings to prepare our world for a time of true peace and tranquility for all with the arrival of Moshiach.

 

Everyone has a spark of goodness

As published in the El Paso Times

For the first time in recent history, the entire world experienced a common crisis for an extended period of time. Even as we gradually resume pre-Covid routines, it will never be the same.

I’ve seen first-hand the deep toll this year of Covid has taken on individuals, young and old. No one came away unaffected. Looking back at this deeply scarring year, we may ask ourselves a simple question: Do we, as human beings, have what it takes to confront this kind of adversity? Or for that matter any kind of difficulty that challenges us to our core?

The answer, I believe is yes. Simply put, there is something embedded in the human psyche that, if tapped into properly, can serve as an anchor for every human being to overcome adversity large or small and confront the unexpected changes we experience all the time.

The late Yehuda Avner served on the personal staff of five Israeli Prime Ministers. In 1977 he had a private meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the leader of the global Chabad-Lubavitch movement. During the lengthy conversation, Avner asked the Rebbe what exactly the role of a rebbe is.

“I will tell you what I’m trying to do,” the Rebbe replied. “Imagine you are looking at a cupboard, and you see a candle there, but I tell you that it is not a candle—it is a lump of wax with a piece of string inside. When does the wax and the wick become a candle? When one brings a flame to the wick. That is when the wax and the wick fulfill the purpose for which they were created.”

“And that is what I try to do—to help everyone fulfill the purpose for which they were created.”

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Avner asked  “Has the Rebbe lit my candle?” He answered, “No. I have given you the match. Only you can light your own candle.”

There is a fundamental premise in Judaism that everyone has a spark of goodness and justice within them. A unique energy that empowers them to impact the world for the good; the purpose of their creation. Unfortunately, this spirit of goodness can sometimes be dimmed and difficult to reach or even recognize, but the potential always remains.

It was this spark of goodness that the Rebbe sought to empower every individual to reveal. Just as a flame will be bright and warm under all circumstances; the Rebbe believed and taught that the core essence of goodness and morality within every person can survive under all circumstances and only needs to be revealed.

Eighty years ago, in the summer of 1941, the Rebbe and his wife arrived in the US after escaping the horrors of the Holocaust. Upon his arrival he set up a revolutionary outreach program that set the stage for the timeless traditions of Judaism to thrive and flourish in a society dominated by assimilation. When others felt that old-school ideas needed to be refreshed and updated to fit with modern times, the Rebbe illustrated that the core values of Judaism, morality and ethics were as timeless and resilient as the flame of a candle.

Our world is changing rapidly in so many ways. By focusing on the principles of decent human conduct, predicated on the awareness that every thought, speech and action is important to G-d and impacts the world around us, we remain anchored to an unchangeable truth. This gives us the strength to flame the spark of goodness within us and others into an inferno of positivity, good will and inspiration.

On Sunday, June 13 we observe the 27th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing in 1994. It’s an auspicious time for us all to reflect on how we can increase in acts of goodness and kindness, and encourage others to do so as well. To set aside time daily for prayer or quiet contemplation on the higher purpose and meaning of life. Ensuring that our own candles shine brightly and help others light their own, thereby preparing our little corner of the world for an era of true world peace and tranquility for all.

Mastering Transition

By nature I’m not a risk taker but change is inevitable and knowing how to embrace transition is crucial to self growth and success.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the debacle of the spies. On the threshold of inheriting the Promised Land, the Israelites demanded Moshe send spies to scout out the land. The best and brightest were chosen for the delicate mission, but upon their return most of them claimed that was impossible. 

They did not lie, per se, but framed their report in a way that frightened their brethren who wailed all night bemoaning their misfortune, infuriating G-d with devastating consequences: The Israelites spent forty years in the barren desert until the entire generation died and their children inherited the land instead.

Why would our nation's finest twist the truth to discourage the Jews from marching into the Land of Israel? What could they possibly gain from such  a conspiracy?

In the desert the Jews were in a spiritual utopia, experiencing daily miracles and studying Torah full time. Settling the land would mean a drastic transition to normalcy and these leaders feared that the inevitable preoccupation with farming and civic life would distract the people from their relationship with G-d.

Ironically, the spies were not conspiring against the people and only had their best interests in mind, but they misunderstood what Judaism is all about. While the insulated ghetto experience that allows one to focus on spiritual growth without distraction may be a style of Jewish living, it's not the ultimate goal. Judaism is meant to flourish within the physical and mundane, and struggling with temptation and distraction is part of nurturing our relationship with G-d. By forgetting the core purpose of Judaism, the spies resisted this crucial transition and brought disaster upon themselves and their people.

Tuesday will mark 80 years since the Rebbe and his wife Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka arrived in America. This date is significant, not only because of their miraculous escape from Nazi occupied Europe, but becasue it marks the beginning of a new era in Jewish life.

The Jewish pre-war migration to America came with a significant loss of Jewish observance, relegating tradition to the “Old World'' of European Jewry. When the previous Rebbe arrived in America in 1940, he established an “Old-World” style Yeshiva to prove that “old traditions” can flourish in America as well, but when the Rebbe arrived a year later, his mission was different: To harness the innovations, progress and culture of the “New World” to promote the timeless truths of Judaism and morality. 

This defines the Rebbe’s leadership and impact on the world at large: Guiding us in mastering the drastic transitions we constantly face in our modern era - while remaining true to the core mission of Judaism - to properly prepare the world for the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all humanity.

 

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