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Rabbis' Blog

Is prayer a crutch?

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

Nothing can be further from the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Collecting the Stragglers

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to live forever?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Responding to antisemitism


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Proudest Chanukah Moment

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m listening.”

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

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

Penn_Menorah.jpg

 

 

 

Control Your Environment

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Being Ruthless

 

Words are marvelous contraptions that can have opposite meanings depending on their context. For example, the word “ruthless” is defined in the dictionary as “having or showing no pity or compassion for others.” This adjective is typically used to describe evile people.

But I have a friend who uses the word “ruthless” to describe anyone he greatly admires for their zealousness and passion for their work or ideas. When he says “this guy is ruthless” I know he means “this guy is my example for how to do this activity.” So it’s all about context.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the meeting between Yaakov and Eisav. What should have been a reunion between twin brothers who had not seen each other for twenty years was a tension filled standoff, since Eisav was marching towards Yaakov’s family with four hundred men eager to kill.

Yaakov averted the danger and Eisav returned home without inflicting any damage but the standoff was the beginning of a long and arduous struggle for the soul of humanity. Yaakov and his offspring, chosen to be G-d’s ambassadors to the world to share the wisdom of Torah are forever challenged by the Eisavs of every generation who aggressively seek world dominion leaving destruction and despair in their wake.

The prophet Ovadia was a descendant of Eisav who converted to Judaism and transmitted the prophecy predicting the ultimate victory of Yaakov’s monotheism and morality over Eisav’s egocentric aggressiveness. “And the house of Yaakov shall be fire and the house of Yoseph a flame, and the house of Eisav shall become stubble, and they shall ignite them and consume them, and the house of Eisav shall have no survivors, for the L-rd has spoken.”

If G-d wants to express that one day Eisav will be reduced to nothing, it would have been more appropriate to compare Eisav to ashes than to stubble and straw which have value. When the enslaved Israelites were forced to build cities for their Egyptian masters, stubble was the material with which they produced building bricks. Why is Eisav compared to such a valuable commodity?

Because the objective here is not to rid the world of Eisav, rather to destroy the evil he represents and harness his ferocious powers for good. The “fire of Yaakov and flame of Yoseph” will eventually burn out the self centeredness and evil within everything in this world and reveal the positive contribution even “ruthlessness” can have in making a more perfect and peaceful world when put in the proper context.

This week we experienced a horrifying anti-semitic attack in Jersey City. Heartbroken and outraged at this seemingly never ending madness we must do all we can to stop this chaos. Let us be mindful that instead of investing all our energy into expressing justified rage, we should seek ways to reach every segment of society and share the beauty of Torah to cultivate the inherent goodness every human being possesses.

Don’t underestimate the willingness of every person to do another mitzvah. Opportunities abound and we need to seize them properly.

Immunization Against Assimilation

 

Elevating the quality of life is the driving force of the economy and the motivation behind human innovation since the beginning of time. We invented the wheel, the train and the space shuttle and so many modes of instant communication and we all know this is only the beginning.

While life is becoming more convenient we must ask ourselves how we protect and elevate the quality of our morals, values and Jewish identity in a fast changing world filled with so many ideologically hostile cultures?

In this week’s parsha we learn of Yaakov’s escape from his brother Eisav’s vengeful wrath. Leaving Be’er Sheva, the capital city of monotheism, morality and ethics at the time, he journeyed to Charan, a community steeped in thievery and deceit and spent twenty years there waiting for his brother’s anger to subside.

Although he was a destitute refugee when he arrived there, Yaakov managed to start a family and accumulate a massive fortune by the time he returned home to Be’er Sheva, all while remaining true to his values throughout. How did he do it?

The Torah relates that on his way to Charan Yaakov spent the night on the spot that would later become Holy Temple. Before going to sleep he arranged some stones around his head as a protection from wild beasts.

If the stones were meant to protect him from beasts, would it not have been prudent to arrange them around his entire body? Besides, what could be the relevant lesson for us today and now, at a time where we have much better modes of self protection, from the way Yaakov protected himself while sleeping outdoors thousands of years ago?

Placing stones only around his head was symbolic of Yaakov’s acute understanding of the challenges that lay ahead. He realized that he was leaving the environment of holiness and purity and entering a world of moral chaos and confusion and his mind needed protection from the moral and ethical challenges he would now endure.

So he surrounded his head with stones which are lifeless and cold, representing the ironclad commitment to doing the right things even if you are uninspired and not in the mood. To protect your values you need to be committed to sticking to them even when you have no interest.

Being intellectually and emotionally invested in Judaism is crucial but the secret to our success is through doing what needs to be done even if our hearts and minds are not invested. Don’t wait to love the mitzvah you can do right now. Do it anyway and your lifeless meaningless action will provide the strongest foundation you need to remain a committed Jew through thick and thin.

The artwork only you can create

In the spring of 1977, the world renowned artist Yaacov Agam gifted an album with selections of his artwork to the Rebbe in honor of his 75th birthday. The Rebbe sent him a letter of appreciation, commenting on the originality of his art and reflected upon a unique lesson we can learn from the way he inscribed a beautiful dedication in the album jacket with artistic shadow letters.

Letters arranged in words and sentences reveal ideas, but when drawn with shadows the letters become more impressive and pleasing to read.

In life we experience revealed and apparent goodness as well as situations best compared to dark and cold shadows. Instinctively we wish the shadows never existed and only the revealed goodness remained, but this is beyond our control. We can however be the artists who expertly position the shadows in ways that magnify and beautify the goodness in our lives.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the birth of Yitzchok and Rivka’s children. Her pregnancy was extremely painful and when she heard from others that her symptoms were abnormal she approached the prophet Shem to find out what’s going on. Shem notified her she was pregnant with twins and her extreme pain was because the two were constantly bickering inside of her.

Her twins represented two dynasties on opposite sides of the moral spectrum. One would be the standard bearer of monotheism and ethical consciousness while the other would aggressively seek world dominion leaving destruction and despair in its wake. They would constantly engage in a global tug of war for the soul of humanity and their battle begins now.

The knowledge she was carrying twins calmed Rivka despite the fact one was destined for bestiality, because so long as there is a defined separation between right and wrong, it is possible to ensure the right side wins.

Rivka’s pregnancy represents the inner reality of us all. There are times when we are shocked at the type of inner urges we are capable of experiencing and wonder if there is something inherently wrong with our morality. The Torah teaches us that there are two entities within us struggling to control our lives and we are tasked with empowering the good to overcome the evil. That the tamed and selfless moralist should overpower the self obsessed beast.

But rather than destroying our beast we must learn to channel its powerful energy to serve and enhance our ability to do the most good.

This is the task of an expert artist. To position the shadows of aggression and self obsession to serve the brightness and warmth of divinity, morality and selflessness to create the most stunning artwork of life.

You and I are the artists charged with developing our unique art.

Did you know you are a "shadchan?"

 

Many are enamored with the concept of a “shadchan,” the mythological matchmaker from Old World Europe who paired the young boys and girls in the shtetl for marriage. While most impressions of how matchmakers did their job are probably exaggerated, most traditional Jewish marriages until today are arranged by a shadchan who brings the two sides together.

In fact, today Shainy and I are celebrating ten years from our engagement, and we met through the arrangements of a shadchan.

The first time a shadchan was used in recorded history is in this week’s parsha. Avraham is seeing a wife for his son Yitzchak and instructs his servant Eliezer to travel to Charan to bring back the perfect girl from his extended family.

The entire mission was a miraculous adventure. His caravan of ten camels covered a distance of several weeks in several hours and while waiting at the well at the outskirts of town Eliezer made a deal with G-d: The first girl to offer him a sip of water would be the lucky catch.

The plan worked and when Rivka came out to the well he asked her for water and she went above and beyond, offering to draw water for the camels as well. When he inquired about her family and discovered she was Avraham’s great niece he was overcome with gratitude to G-d for bringing it all together.

She introduced him to her parents and now Eliezer was tasked with convincing them to agree to the match - the job description of a shadchan. He told them the details of his adventure and hearing how miraculous it was they understood that it was “bashert - meant to be” that Rivka marry Yitzchak.

Instead of writing “Eliezer told them the story of how he met Rivka” which the reader has just read, the Torah repeats the entire conversation with all the details that had just been related to us several verses earlier. Over fifty verses are dedicated to this seemingly unnecessary matchmaking story.

This is even more striking considering that tens of thousands of laws pertaining to the 613 mitzvot are merely alluded to in slight nuances, whereas the story of the first shadchan is repeated in all of its detail!

This match represents the story of Judaism. Rivka came from Charan (Hebrew for “anger), a heathen society steeped in promiscuity that it was the source of G-d’s anger at the world. Eliezer’s mission was to unite Rivka, who hailed from such a low moral background, to Yitzchak, the epitome of holiness and divinity.

This is what Judaism is all about. To elevate even the lowliest of realities and reveal the inherent divinity and goodness within it. The rest of the Torah tells us how to do it, but this matchmaker’s story teaches us that every one of us is a “shadchan” empowered to unite the entire world with G-d and pave the way for the era of Moshiach when goodness and kindness will prevail for all.

A Jew Can Always Learn New Tricks

 

I am told the older you get the harder it is to change.

But this week I witnessed someone close to seventy years old purchase a brand new pair of Tefillin and commit to wearing them daily (except Shabbos, of course) and a friend of mine just officiated at a Bris ceremony for a man who is older than seventy. This readiness to change and grow at every stage in life stems from the core of our identity.

The narrative of this week’s parsha opens three days after Avraham observed the mitzvah of Bris Milah (circumcision) at the age of ninety nine. He was in considerable pain, so G-d arranged for the weather to be extremely hot, deterring travelers from arriving at Avraham’s tent to avail themselves of his legendary hospitality. Avraham was distressed at this turn of events and sat at the entrance of his tent seeking guests to welcome into his home. As he sat there, he experienced a special revelation of G-d.

Over 150 years ago, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer, was celebrating his fifth birthday and he received a blessing from his grandfather, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek.

During their brief conversation, the young Sholom DovBer started sobbing. He learned in school that Avraham experienced a revelation from G-d. “Why does G-d not reveal himself to me?” cried the four year old to his grandfather.

“When a Jew who is ninety nine years old is willing to do a bris, he is worthy to experience divine revelation,” the Rebbe answered.

This brief conversation expresses the essential power of a Jew. Regardless of a Jew’s spiritual, religious or intellectual level he or she is always capable of desiring an intimate relationship with G-d. Even a small child can demand divine revelation and clarity.

And the way to get it is by always being ready to change and grow in Judaism. No matter how accomplished one may be, it is important to acknowledge there is room for growth and have the humility and boldness to make the change.

When Avraham was ninety nine years old he had achieved greater moral and spiritual heights than we ever will in ten lifetimes, yet he was ready to make the change.

My heroes are the brave men willing to start a new routine of wearing Tefillin every weekday and the brave women willing to kosher their kitchens and adopt new cooking habits. Those willing to set aside time every day to discover new vistas in Torah or take on the challenge of learning to read Hebrew. Undaunted by age and status, they are willing to adopt another mitzvah.

When we make our move, G-d reciprocates by giving us more clarity in life and an abundance of unimaginable blessing for ourselves and our families.

 

This Was Humanity’s Error That Avraham Fixed

 

Living Jewishly is vastly different than what conventional wisdom defines religiosity. The most common method used to measure one's religious devotion is participation in communal worship. Some think annual participation is sufficient to be considered religious while others contend one needs to be more consistent.

But Judaism is different. Open a Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), the eternal guidebook to Jewish living and you will find rules and regulations for every detail of life. The first words you utter upon waking, the order of getting dressed and how and when to eat breakfast is all delineated in the book about religiosity. Does G-d really care about the small details?

This week we learn of the adventures of Avraham the first Jew. He merited the title because in a society dominated by idolatry, not only did he understand its inherent fallacy and discover the truth of G-d, he shared this clarity with anyone that would listen. He endured unbearable opposition and persecution as a result and it’s important to understand how society deteriorated to the point of worshipping molten images as deities.

In the beginning people merited direct communication with G-d. Everyone understood that G-d is the Creator, but they made one philosophical error. It is unbecoming for the great and omnipotent G-d to continuously be involved in the nitty gritty details of our universe. Once the cycle of nature was set in motion, G-d lost interest and moved on to bigger and better things. After all, keeping track of the many trillions of details in creation is tiring and no one appreciates a micromanager. 

This premise led to a series of philosophical errors which eventually evolved into the primitive and foolish culture of worshipping idols. (Read the full story from Maimonides.)

Avraham challenged this original premise and explained that the notion that G-d tires or chose to delegate duties is an intellectual absurdity. As the creator constantly bringing reality into existence, G-d is surely present in every detail.

He established an enormous hospitality apparatus at the crossroads of civilization, inviting all travelers to benefit from free room and board on the condition they acknowledge and thank G-d for it all. By educating people to find G-d in the mundane functions of eating, drinking and sleeping, he exposed the fallacy of idolatry, diminishing its influence on society with every progressive generation.

It follows that Avraham’s legacy of Judaism is all about revealing the divine in every detail of life, and the way to do so is spelled out in the Shulchan Aruch. Learning the abridged version is a good place to start.

When this fundamental premise pervades our psyche we can truly appreciate how every encounter is meaningful, nothing is dispensable and even challenges and failures can be purposeful. It all happens by focusing properly and Jewishly on the humdrum routine of life.

Hurricane Noach

Until half a century ago names became infamous only due to bad human behavior. But in 1953 we started giving names to hurricanes and tropical storms and for New Orleans peeps the name “Katrina” is a frightful memory and for Northeast Coasters the name “Sandy” can be traumatizing. Try saying “Harvey” to East Texans and see how it makes them feel...

Of course, there is no need for the Katrinas, Sandys and Harveys of the world to feel self conscious about this since these names are determined by a strict procedure established by the World Meteorological Organization. So there is no insinuation that someone named Katrina had anything to do with the destruction of New Orleans in 2005. But the historic flood that wiped all life off the face of the earth has been named for the man who was instrumental in ensuring that there would be survivors to rebuild the new world.

Every Shabbat, after we read the Torah portion during Synagogue services, we read a section from the Prophets containing a message similar to what we just read in the Torah scroll. This is called the Haftarah.

The section we read in connection with the story of Noach and the flood comes from Isaiah chapter 54 which discusses the redemption of the Jewish people after a long and arduous exile. G-d promises us that exile will never happen again, just as he promised Noach that life will never be destroyed from the earth again.

"For this is to Me [as] the waters of Noach, as I swore that the waters of Noach shall never again pass over the earth, so have I sworn neither to be wroth with you nor to rebuke you.”

Notice the prophet refers to the terrible flood as the “waters of Noach.” Why does Noach deserve to have his name associated with the waters that destroyed life, when he was actually the one to achieve the restoration of life after the disaster?

As I discussed last year, Noach failed to inspire his generation to repent. He spent over a century building his lifeboat without managing to persuade anyone outside of his immediate family to repent. As the face of morality of his time, he was expected to do more to avert the flood altogether. Since he chose not to lead, the flood is on his record.

But in Noach’s defense it is important to realize that humanity in his time was so earthly, coarse and egotistical that sensitivity to the divine was impossible. This is why G-d chose to restart civilization through the purifying energy of water.

The name “Waters of Noach” means “Waters of Serenity” as well. Just as water gathered properly for a Mikva can remove ritual impurity and make someone worthy to enter the Holy Temple, the waters of the great flood purified reality, paving the way for the revelation at Sinai and for Torah to serve as a light for all nations to attain the greatest moral, ethical and spiritual heights. Preparing our world for an era of peace and serenity with the coming of Moshiach.

Torah speaks to us today

 

Although the new year began several weeks ago, this Shabbat we really turn the page and start anew. Upon concluding the Torah reading cycle on Tuesday on Simchat Torah, this Shabbat we start from the beginning once again.

Also, due to the hectic schedule of the high holiday season, many classes were on hold, and now is the time when many communities and individuals restart their learning routines. On  a personal note, this is the time for me to invite the community to join our adult education program with various options for communal and individual learning opportunities. (See here for details).

I am often asked if there are any prerequisites to joining a Torah class. There is a misconception that one need to have been Bar Mitzvahed, have graduated Hebrew school or at least have some Hebrew reading and comprehension abilities before engaging in a Torah setting.

Nothing is further from the truth. Everyone and anyone can join classes or start a private learning session with the Rabbi. Try it and you’ll like it.

There is however one prerequisite to a successful Torah journey, and it is hinted to us in the very first letter of the Torah.

The Torah begins with the story of creation and opens with the word “Bereishis - In the beginning.” The first letter of the first word is a “Bet” which is the second letter of the Hebrew AlphaBet. Would it not have been more appropriate for the Torah to start with the first letter Alef?

Before we get to the answer it is important to know that just as we recite blessings before eating food or doing a mitzvah, there is a special blessing we recite before learning Torah. Here is how it goes:

Boruch atoh ado-noy elo-haynu melech ho-olom, asher bochar bonu mikol ha-amim, v'nosan lonu es toroso. Boruch atoh ado-noy, nosayn ha-toroh.

Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah. Blessed are You L-rd, who gives the Torah.

You may recognize this blessing from the procedure of being honored with an Aliya at the Torah during synagogue services, but this blessing appears in the prayer book in the morning blessings and should be recited by everyone daily before reading even one line of Torah.

This blessing is a crucial reminder for us that Torah is not merely a brilliant scholarly work we received over three thousand years ago, but G-d’s wisdom which is currently being transmitted to us today! “Blessed are You L-rd, who GIVES the Torah” - in the present tense.

Approaching Torah study with this inspired attitude makes it relevant and empowering.

This is why Torah starts with a “Bet.” When reading and understanding comes secondary to and only after reciting and meditating upon the message of the “Beracha - blessing” (which also begins with a “Bet”) the Torah then speaks to us today as well.

 

The Sages called it “The Easy Mitzvah”

 

Eating is an integral part of how we celebrate our holidays, but since we like to kvetch (complain) there is a well known Jewish quip: Pesach there is nothing to eat (chametz-free diet can be tough), Shavuot there is no time to eat (it’s very short) and Sukkot there is no place to eat (gotta eat in the Sukkah).

The Talmud states that eating in the Sukkah for seven days is an easy mitzvah. While there are certainly mitzvot that are easier and harder to observe, identifying one as objectively easy seems puzzling. Plenty of people have a very hard time eating in the Sukkah for various reasons. Rather the sages are intimating that the Sukkah provides us the key to make every mitzvah easy to do. 

Following the solemn high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d gives us the joyous festival of Sukkot. Not to balance the solemnity of the high  holidays with something light and fun, but to put us in the proper mindset to follow through with our new year resolutions.

Sukkot has two unique mitzvot. Sitting in the Sukkah and reciting a blessing on and waving the Four Species (colloquially known as Lulav and Esrog). Why does the holiday name emphasize one mitzvah over the other?

While Lulav and Esrog is an important mitzvah, Sukkah has several superior qualities.

The mitzvah of Sukkah is constant. The obligation to sit in the Sukkah starts as soon as the holiday begins in the evening and continues to be relevant for a full seven days, 24 hours a day, even on Shabbat. Shaking the Lulav only becomes relevant the next morning, can be done only once a day, specifically during daylight hours and is never done on Shabbat.

When you sit in the Sukkah your entire body is involved in the mitzvah, but shaking the Lulav involves just your hands.

The combination of the Four Kinds is an exotic religious thing. The stuff you do in the Sukkah is the same old regular stuff you do all the time in your home.

Not only does the Sukkah encompass everything about us during the week, it becomes our identity as well. The Torah defines the Sukkah as a Jew’s home during Sukkot and our relationship with home is not predicated on us being there. We identify with it even when we are halfway across the globe. “Hi, my name is ____ and I live in ____.”

It follows that our connection to the Sukkah is not only when we enter it, but wherever we are we can say “Hi. I’m a Jew and I’m a Sukkah dweller.”

The Sukkah teaches us that mitzvot are not exotic extras we need to pack into an already overloaded life schedule; they are home. And just like our connection to home is easy, convenient and pleasurable even if the road back is challenging, our connection to Judaism should be the same.

As we begin sitting in the Sukkah this Sunday evening, reflect on its homey message and see how easy it will be to follow through with all the mitzvah commitments you made these high holidays.

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