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Rabbis' Blog

What ten months can do

 

Remember when local schools announced they were closing for 2 weeks in March 2020 due to the mysterious novel Coronavirus? Many thought COVID would disrupt our lives for a very short time but here we are 10 months later with most local schools barely resuming in-person instruction and the future is anyone’s guess.

Imagine the school and business closures only lasted 2 weeks as initially announced, you can be sure we would have forgotten the virus ever existed by now, just like most people can’t tell you when the swine flu pandemic happened. But after 10 months of unprecedented global disruption, you can be sure the COVID era will be seared into the collective memory of humanity for a very long time.

In this week’s parsha Va’eira we learn about seven of the ten plagues G-d afflicted the Egyptians for enslaving the Jews. Many who are familiar with the story of Exodus don’t realize that more than ten months elapsed from when Moshe and Aharon first demanded Pharaoh let the people go until they actually left. Each plague was a one month procedure. For three weeks Moshe warned them of the impending plague and each one lasted a week.

Only after enduring miraculous harassment for close to a year, Pharaoh finally snapped and chased the Jews out of the land in mere hours, which presents the glaring question: Why could G-d not whisk the Jews out of Egypt within hours of Moshe arriving with the promise of redemption?

Imagine Jews in Auschwitz were told that G-d would first patiently afflict their oppressors for 10 months and only then take them out of the barbed wires. They would surely forgo seeing their murderous captors suffer and prefer to get out of there immediately. Why did the exodus from Egypt need to happen over such a long period of time?

The 10 plagues were not just a punishment for the Egyptians’ sadistic behavior. They were designed to disprove their heathen ideology and prove to them and to the rest of the world that G-d is in control of the universe. Had the Jews been whisked away from slavery in a matter of hours, days or even weeks, it would have been big news for a while but forgotten almost as quickly as it happened. Only because Egypt endured more than 10 months of divine harassment in such a public way did the knowledge of G-d’s omnipotence remain seared in humanity’s collective memory forever.

The COVID era is unique in the fact that people everywhere experienced its disruptions personally. But aside from the devastating pain, loss and financial ruin it wrought, it also revealed the deep reservoirs of perseverance and goodness we all possess. The outpouring of concern for neighbors, friends, community members and complete strangers is simultaneously astonishing and heartening. Many utilized the many extra hours suddenly available because of the closures to increase their Torah study and try out new Mitzvahs, discovering a new appreciation for their Judaism.

These past 10 months will reshape our lives and the world we live in for generations to come and it is up to us to choose which part of the experience will make its most indelible mark. Let’s ramp up the unique positivity we can generate specifically during this once-in-a-lifetime situation and ensure that we can be proud of this era’s lasting effects.

 

Just stretch out your hand

 

Last night a friend who runs an amazing organization for goodness reached out to me to vent his frustration. He’s talented, capable, energetic with some pretty amazing ideas floating around in his head but he simply can't break out of the routine of managing the organization to actually get them done.

He got me thinking about the infinite amount of amazing ideas that never happen simply because reality dictates we don’t have the time, money, headspace or emotional energy to succeed.

In this week’s parsha Shemos we learn how Pharaoh ordered all newborn Jewish baby boys cast in the Nile River. Despair engulfed the nation even at the pinnacle of its leadership, but the five year old Miriam prophesied to her father Amram that if he would not discourage his fellow Jews from having children, the next child born in their family would be the redeemer.

Moshe was born shortly afterwards but his survival hung in the balance as the Egyptians were tenaciously tracking down all the babies and drowning them. When she could hide him no longer, his mother converted a small basket into a floating device and set her newborn son adrift in the Nile River, hoping for the best.

Well aware that the future of Judaism hung in the balance as the destined redeemer floated aimlessly in the water, vulnerable and defenseless, Miriam hid at the riverbank to see what would happen to her brother.

Pharaoh’s daughter Batya came to the river to bathe and noticed the basket from afar. She intuited that it contained a baby in danger but was too far to rescue it on her own, and the basket and the baby kept drifting further and further away.

Batya had every reason to give up the rescue operation. Aside from the fact that she would surely incur her father’s wrath for disobeying his decree, physics dictated that she could not save the baby since the basket was too far away and there was no one she could summon to help. All her options were doomed for failure. Nevertheless, she stretched out her hand towards the basket and miraculously her arm stretched the enormous distance to reach the basket and when it contracted to its original size, she held the basket in her lap with the baby safe and sound. The future redeemer of Israel had been saved.

Simply put, the exodus only happened because Batya had the courage to stretch out her hand even when it made no sense.

The next time you feel compelled to do something good but the facts tell you it cannot be done - be like Batya and courageously stretch out your hand. Do all you can do in the proper direction and G-d will take care of the rest.

Most importantly please realize that the one Mitzvah you do today can be the one to tip the scales and bring redemption to the entire world when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Doesn’t make sense? Learn from Batya.

 

 

Driving through a snowstorm

 

This week my family did a quick getaway to Austin to spend time with cousins and after three enjoyable days packed into our van and headed west. Four hours into the drive it started snowing and by the time we reached the I-10 & I-20 Junction we found ourselves in standstill traffic. 

We reached a gas station four miles ahead after eight hours of slowly and carefully inching forward, until the freeway opened up a bit and we were able to continue our trip at a normal pace. Thank G-d we are all safe and sound and enjoyed our trip very much.

Inching forward in wee hours of Thursday morning I cannot describe to you how gratifying every yard forward felt. Slogging through one mile of snow and ice was a monumental accomplishment and felt infinitely better than covering 600 miles at 80 MPH.

This week’s parsha opens with the words “Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years.” After learning that his missing son Yosef was very much alive and the viceroy of Egypt, Yaakov moved there together with his entire family, ending the painful 22 year period of mourning and separation.

The opening word “Vayechi” which means “and he lived” also communicates to us that those 17 years in Egpyt were the best ones of Yaakov’s life.

Over 200 years ago, the Alter Rebbe (the founder of Chabad) was asked by his grandson, (who later became the third Rebbe of Chabad) how can one suggest that Yaakov’s best years were spent in Egypt, the epicenter of moral depravity and corruption? While they were certainly peaceful years, the geographical location of Egypt represents the exact opposite of what Yaakov stood for. 

The Hebrew name for Egypt “Mitzrayim” is etymologically linked to the Hebrew word for limitations and boundaries. Yaakov was the third link in the glorious legacy of Avraham, the first Jew, who promoted G-dliness to a heathen civilization; an ideology that transcends all the limitations and boundaries of the physical and material world. How could Yaakov thrive in the “Mitzrayim” environment more than he did in the Holy Land, to the point that his best years of life were in Egypt?

The Alter Rebbe answered that before Yaakov arrived he established a Yeshiva and his descendants continued studying Torah even while living in Egypt. While Torah study in the Holy Land is like cruising down the I-10 at 80 MPH, continuing to study Torah in the challenging and limiting environment of Egypt is like inching through a mile in standstill traffic during a snowstorm: the achievement is incomparable.

That’s why Yaakov lived it up specifically in Egypt and we learn from him that while we certainly don’t seek out challenges, overcoming them provides the context for us to thrive with even greater capacity.

I get the feeling that most of us experienced 2020 like slogging through a few miles in a snowstorm. It was certainly a challenging year, but let’s focus on the things we did manage to do despite all of this and look back at this time with a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

 

 

 

Start preparing the party now!

 

Life can be tough but often when asked “What will be?” many will answer “It will be good!”

It’s a great attitude but how can one be sure that everything will turn out for the best? Is this a naive way of navigating the treacherous waters of challenge and tragedy or is there something to it?

I’m often reminded of how horribly the English language translates the word “Torah.” “Bible” simply means a book, but the word Torah is better translated as a guide. Torah guides our life not just because it outlines Jewish law in all areas of life, but even the historical narratives serve as lessons to us. Even minor and often glossed over details contain profound insights to life.

In this week’s parsha Vayigash we learn of the dramatic reunion between Yosef and his brothers who had sold him into slavery twenty two years earlier.

Yosef, now viceroy of Egypt, urged them to rush back to their father Yaakov with the good news that his missing son was very much alive and to bring him and the family down to Egypt immediately.

The Torah records that Yosef sent provisions to his father for the way. “And to his father he sent the following: ten he donkeys carrying of the best of Egypt, and ten she donkeys carrying grain, bread, and [other] food, for his father for the way.” (Genesis 45:23)

The Talmud explains that “the best of Egypt” refers to aged wine. While the other provisions of grain, bread and food were certainly necessary to send, as the famine had wiped out all the food in the region, why was Yosef certain that Yaakov’s wine supply was depleted as well?

One may argue that we shouldn’t think too deeply into this and it’s a beautiful gesture on the part of a long lost son, but in truth, the aged wine Yosef sent his father expressed the depth and strength of his faith and trust in G-d that had sustained him throughout the painful years of separation.

For twenty two years no one in the family drank wine. Yaakov was in mourning, the brothers were miserable with regret and Yosef was far away from home. Now, as the long awaited reunion was finally happening they were all going to toast a Lechaim on wine. But Yosef sent his father aged wine to show that although he had not touched wine for so many years, he was preparing it throughout these terrible times in anticipation for the good days ahead.

When times are tough we ought to believe in the future good times to the point that we prepare champagne in the thick of our pain and suffering for the celebration we will have when it all ends. As we continue to navigate through the dark and treacherous two thousand years long exile, let’s learn from Yosef to anticipate the imminent arrival of Moshiach when the entire world will be redeemed from all suffering and peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Start preparing the party now by living a more elevated and meaningful life through increasing in Torah study, Mitzvah observance and caring for others.

 

Light beats darkness in every language

 

Before Chanukah I was interviewed by Duke Keith from KLAQ for an El Paso Townsquare radio story that aired early Sunday morning. During our conversation he asked me about Chanukah liturgy and I realized that in over 10 years no one has ever asked me such a question on a public forum. Even in Jewish circles, Chanukah is most popularly associated with lighting the Menorah, but not with its liturgy.

 

While there certainly is a unique Chanukah liturgy - the V’al Hanissim prayer recited during the Amida prayer and the Grace After Meal - it’s not nearly as well known as the liturgy associated with most other Jewish holidays. While we can certainly do more to focus on this special prayer, the core message of Chanukah comes across to the world in such a powerful way through the Menorah, because light is something we can all readily appreciate. Liturgy must be studied and is not accessible to all, whereas flames of fire brighten darkness no matter what language you speak.

 

In this week’s parsha Miketz we continue learning about the dramatic saga of Yosef. Sold into slavery by his brothers, he wound up in an Egyptian dungeon for a crime he never committed. 

Pharaoh dreamed of seven scrawny cows devouring seven fat cows and seven dried out ears of corn devouring seven full ears of corn, which Yosef explained were a divine message that Egypt will enjoy seven years of plentiful harvest followed by seven years of famine. He suggested hoarding the seven year surplus to save the region from the devastating famine and Pharoah tapped him for the job of implementing the survival plan. He was now viceroy to Pharaoh, wielded tremendous power and bore sole responsibility of the Egyptian economy.

When the famine struck and people streamed to Egypt for provisions, Yosef’s brothers came as well, but when they stood before the viceroy, the Torah emphasizes that Yosef recognized them but they did not recognize him. Of course, a 22 year absence can cause you not to recognize a brother but our sages teach us that there was a deeper reason why the brothers did not recognize Yosef.

When Avraham started his ideological revolution of monotheism, he remained independent of all nations. The same was true of his son Yitzchok and his grandson Yaakov and his sons. In order to maintain their spiritual orientation it was crucial for them to be separate from all others and engage with civilization on their own terms.

Yosef was the first member of the Abrahamic tribe to lose this unique independence, becoming an Egyptian slave who remained beholden to them even after his meteoric rise to power with the immense pressure of managing the affairs of state. Nevertheless, Yosef retained his spiritual equilibrium and even managed to elevate the moral and ethical orientation of the depraved Egyptians themselves.

This was an accomplishment his brothers could not fathom.

Yosef was the first Menorah. Just as flames illuminate darkness no matter what language you speak or which culture you associate with, the lessons of Judaism are meant to inspire humanity in every place and at all times. Yosef and Chanukah teach us that a Jew must never be intimidated by opposition or apathy and proudly live life Jewishly in a way that will inspire all humanity to greater moral and ethical heights, preparing our world for the era of Moshiach, when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Why this pandemic Hanukkah may be the most important of our lifetime

https://www.jta.org/2020/12/08/opinion/why-this-pandemic-hanukkah-may-be-the-most-important-of-our-lifetime

If you would have asked me before Passover — as I packed matzah and other items for Jews preparing to experience their first Seder alone at home — whether we would need to rethink Hanukkah celebrations, I would have laughed you off. December felt a lifetime away and most of us assumed normal life would resume in a matter of months.

But here we are, gearing up for a Hanukkah that will keep us home at a time when we would normally be viewing public menorah lightings in huge crowds, celebrating and enjoying latkes with friends and family. This year’s public celebrations are mostly limited to drive-in events, parades, other creative ideas that facilitate proper social-distancing behavior and of course the endless smorgasbord of online events we can enjoy from our couches.

Like everyone else, we at Chabad-Lubavitch here in El Paso, Texas, have to improvise. Instead of our annual Hanukkah Playland, Home Depot menorah workshop, holiday parties in senior centers and nightly public menorah lightings, we are hosting a drive-in Hanukkah festival and nightly Zoom events. While we look forward to the intimate nature of lighting together with our community, each in our own homes, as well as the extra family time we will all enjoy, it will certainly not be the same.

Although it seems Hanukkah this year will be more subdued, I predict it will actually be more meaningful than ever. In fact, I believe it can help us appreciate the unique opportunity that our physical isolation can really present.

Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the heroic Maccabees over the heathen Syrian-Greek empire in 139 BCE. But the essential observance of the holiday — lighting the menorah for eight nights — commemorates the discovery of a single cruse of ritually pure olive oil that miraculously burned for eight days and nights in the menorah of the newly restored Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

In an ironic twist, although the kindling of the Hanukkah lights invokes the miracle associated with the Temple menorah, the process of actually lighting the candelabra was instituted by our Sages in a much different format. While the Temple menorah had a set number of flames kindled in broad daylight in an indoor communal space, Hanukkah candles are meant to be kindled at home, after dark and with an increasing amount of flames every night.

Instead of simply commemorating distant history, the Hanukkah lights are meant to inspire us here and now to the unique ability of every individual to transform the dark and increasingly chaotic world around us into a place of brilliant serenity. We light them after dark to emphasize the power of a single good deed to neutralize much evil — as a small flame vanquishes even immense darkness; in ever increasing numbers to inspire us to consistently add in our goodness; and at home because our impact on the world begins from our own home.

For over two millennia, the Hanukkah experience was a personal one. In 1973, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, inaugurated a massive Hanukkah awareness campaign, encouraging one and all to share the mitzvah and message of Hanukkah in public and with pride. The next year, Chabad emissaries erected a public menorah outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and by the end of the decade there were giant menorahs going up in public spaces from San Francisco to New York’s Fifth Avenue, bringing the celebrations to the streets. 

Public menorah lightings in city centers large and small throughout the world are by now an established and beloved part of the Hanukkah experience, and giant menorahs at landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Brandenburg Gate and, of course, outside the White House are all signs of the season. These large Chabad menorahs and the 15,000 like them around the globe — with the accompanying newspaper and television coverage bringing the light of Hanukkah directly into millions of living rooms — ultimately introduced Hanukkah into mainstream culture. All of this was because of the Rebbe’s vision to share the Hanukkah message with humanity at large.

In a 1980 public letter addressed “To all Participants in the Public Lighting of the Hanukkah Menorah in the U.S.A,” the Rebbe emphasized what the public Hanukkah celebrations are really all about.

“The Hanukkah Lights remind us in a most obvious way that illumination begins at home, within oneself and one’s family, by increasing and intensifying the light of the Torah and Mitzvos in the everyday experience … But though it begins at home, it does not stop there. Such is the nature of light that when one kindles a light for one’s own benefit, it benefits also all who are in the vicinity.”

This year, more than ever, we need to light the menorah at home every night of Hanukkah and focus on this message: Even when we are limited in our public in-person interactions, creating more light in our private spaces impacts everyone around us. 

And since by now Hanukkah is universally known — thanks to its increasing ubiquitousness over the last four decades — we can share this crucial idea with humanity at large and beyond just the eight days.

Every person should know of and be empowered by the menorah’s eternal message: The energy created by increasing acts of goodness and kindness in the privacy of our own homes generates a ripple effect that can be felt on the outside, ultimately engulfing what so often appears to be a cold and dark world in the warmth and glow of divine goodness.

 

 

 

Darkness is controlled by creating light

Often in conversation nowadays people share with me that - although they continue following social distancing guidelines and all - they are emotionally done with this virus. The constant disruption of daily life, the economic and emotional devastation and, of course, the public health crisis is dragging on for much too long. When it started we thought it would be a simple bump in the road, but here we are eight months later dealing with it in even greater measure.

If only it would just go away.

You can’t wish away a virus, or any crisis for that matter, and the Jewish holiday of Chanukah teaches us an important lesson about coping with our challenging times.

Over 2,000 years ago the ancient Syrian Greek empire conquered the Land of Israel and commenced a tyrannical campaign of persecution against the Jews. They seized and defiled the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, effectively dismantling organized Jewish life. It was a time of darkness and despondency.

After several years of unbearable religious persecution, a small group of devout Jews – commonly known as the Maccabees - revolted and miraculously decimated the occupying forces, ushering in an era of relative peace for close to a century.

When they prepared to rededicate the Holy Temple service of lighting the seven branched candelabrum — the menorah — they found only one night’s supply of ritually pure olive oil and replenishing the supply would take eight days. With complete trust in G-d they lit the menorah and were overjoyed when the seven flames miraculously burned for eight days and nights.

In celebration, Chanukah was born. Instead of focusing on the military victory, the eight day festival is observed by kindling flames for eight nights in commemoration of the miracle of the oil. However, whereas the same amount of candles were lit in the Holy Temple every day in broad daylight, the holiday observance was instituted so that every individual lights an increasing amount of candles, in their home, specifically after dark.

Far from being a commemoration of the distant past, the Chanukah lights inspire us here and now to the unique ability we all have to brighten a dark world. You can’t banish darkness through brute force, condemnation or wishful thinking. Only by introducing light - even very little light. 

The one flame we kindle on the first night of Chanukah proves that even one good deed can brighten a dark environment. The next day we cannot be satisfied with yesterday's accomplishments because living things must grow; light, goodness and kindness must increase every day.

This observance is done at home to remind us in a most obvious way that illumination begins at home, within oneself and one’s family, but does not stop there. The nature of light that when one kindles a light for one’s own benefit, it benefits also all who are in the vicinity.

As we continue to face this unprecedented crisis in our community and throughout the world, let us be heartened by the message of the Chanukah lights, that although we can’t wish it away, we can certainly brighten up our reality with increasing acts of goodness and kindness, starting with one single positive act.

On a practical note, beyond the Chanukah observance, I suggest having a designated giving box at home and at work. Every day place a little bit of money in the box for charity and when filled give the value of the contents to a worthy cause. It’s a small gesture of kindness, but when done daily it can have a profound impact on ourselves and our families. Share this observance with everyone you know and together we can make our world a more peaceful place for all.

https://elpasomatters.org/2020/12/10/chanukahs-lesson-darkness-is-controlled-by-creating-light/

https://www.elpasotimes.com/story/opinion/2020/12/10/darkness-controlled-creating-light-rabbi-levi-greenberg-el-paso-times/3883911001/

 

Here’s why I’ll be wishing you “Shana Tova” this Shabbat

Earlier this week I was recruited to petition a legislator to sign a congressional letter advocating for the release of a federal prisoner who has served a veritable life sentence for a non-violent crime and should be released on moral, ethical and humanitarian grounds. His story broke my heart and I hope he experiences his long awaited redemption very soon.

Two hundred twenty two years ago the founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe, was imprisoned for 53 days on false charges of treason and was released on the 19th of Kislev. It was a truly joyous occasion - just as anyone’s release from imprisonment is - but the celebration of this auspicious day only intensified with time and today there are thousands of celebrations happening all over the world. This is because his release was a watershed moment in history, earning it the name “Rosh Hashanah (the new year) of Chassidus.”

Let me explain how the Alter Rebbe’s release from prison connects to Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first human beings. From the moment of their creation, humanity was entrusted with the mission of leading and developing the universe. But for thousands of years, the purpose of creation and the intellectual process of appreciating the divine plan in creation was accessible only by a select few through the study of Kabbalah, remaining a mystery for everyone else.

Then the Chassidic movement was founded by the Baal Shem Tov with the express goal of bringing these hidden treasures to the masses. Two generations later, the Alter Rebbe was sharing the deepest insights of the esoteric levels of the Torah in such relatable terms, essentially transforming the Jewish paradigm in ways that we take for granted today. The inherent value of every mitzvah, the impact every individual can have on the world and our essential bond with G-d are but a sampling of the topics he revolutionized. In fact almost every Chassidic discourse has some variation of the question “Why was the world created?” worked into its syllabus.

Revolutions have consequences and the fierce resistance his teachings faced from within the Jewish community led some radicals to cross every red line and convince the government that the Alter Rebbe was a threat to the czar, leading to his arrest. Based on the premise that everything in our world is a reflection of a spiritual reality, however, the Chassidic masters explain that the resistance to Chassidus was mainly playing out on a spiritual plane: Would the Alter Rebbe be allowed to continue sharing G-d’s secrets in such an unprecedented manner?

His miraculous release on 19 Kislev 222 years ago was a resounding endorsement of the Chassidic mission statement and marks a turning point in the way we access the deepest teachings of the Torah and apply them to our day to day life, setting the stage for an era of global peace, serenity and divine awareness through Moshiach.

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate creation and on 19 Kislev we celebrate our ability to properly understand its purpose and how to achieve it. Sounds to me like a good reason to celebrate Rosh Hashanah again.

As we celebrate the “chassidic new year” this Shabbat, the 19th of Kislev, I wish you a “Shana Tova” and invite you to peruse through our online library of chassidic texts and audio and video classes and see how you can benefit from these precious teachings.

 

 

Thanksgiving even when it doesn’t feel right

A friend confided in me that Thanksgiving this year will be dreadful as he won’t be celebrating with family back east. I hear this sentiment from so many here in town and it’s all over my social media feed. Clearly, eight months of our new reality has not prepared us for the emotional drain of being alone, especially at times when we are accustomed to being with those we love most.

But I have yet to hear someone suggest canceling Thanksgiving altogether. Regardless of the restrictions on celebrating with family and friends, the national holiday will be observed as always, and I believe there is something to be learned from this that can help us going forward.

Thanksgiving was first observed as a celebration to give thanks to G-d for new- found freedom and a good harvest. While the pilgrims originally celebrated out of genuine feelings of gratitude, over time it became a scheduled national holiday, drifting away - for many - from its original intent, which some may argue has stripped it of its meaningfulness. But here is a different angle to consider.

The Stillerman family owned a grocery store in Brooklyn in 1950s and their nine year old son Nochum would make periodic deliveries to the home of Mrs. Chana Schneerson, the mother of the world renowned leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe.

Over time he became more comfortable with his high profile customer and once asked her what was the Rebbe’s favorite prayer. Several weeks later she shared with him that her son’s favorite prayer is twelve Hebrew words recited immediately upon awakening, known as “Modeh Ani.”

“I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great,”  it reads in English.

I find this striking since there are so many beautifully poetic prayers in Jewish liturgy, customarily recited in settings more suitable for spiritual inspiration. Yet the Rebbe most appreciated the simple prayer we say while still in bed, even before we have had the chance to properly orient ourselves. Although it may seem mechanical, starting the day with an expression of gratitude regardless of the circumstances or how genuine it may feel at the moment is the best way to set us on the right course.

We need to get used to the idea of expressing gratitude even if we don’t really feel it. I was raised hearing stories of family members who recited prayerful liturgy every day while imprisoned in Soviet gulags or Nazi concentration camps, when they had every reason not to welcome a new day. But those daily habitual words of gratitude kept them anchored in their belief and trust that the world is not a random jungle and there is meaning and purpose to every circumstance.

Although our current times may feel like a nightmare, and Thanksgiving this year is missing its usual pomp and ceremony, the fact that it’s still on the calendar should inspire us to incorporate certain meaningful practices into our daily schedule, regardless of how we feel about them.

Dedicate time every day for quiet reflection on purpose and meaning and share these moments with your family. Do an act of goodness and kindness every day and seek ways to inspire others to do the same. Positive routine behaviors—even mechanical—can shape our reality and the good we do today will become the seeds from which the fruits of tomorrow will grow and brighten the future in ways we can only imagine.

Are you hating 2020?

 

Eight months into COVID madness I hear from so many that they expect only the worst from 2020 after so many disappointments. Aside from the pandemic’s devastating impact on public health and our economy, the forced isolation that has brought with it lonely birthdays, Passover, High Holidays and now Thanksgiving is having a demoralizing effect.

Last weekend over 5,000 Chabad rabbis faced a similar disappointment as the annual Chabad Lubavitch Convention was staged online instead of in the halls of Brooklyn for obvious reasons. Sure there would be workshops, presentations and plenty of inspiration, but I and most of my contemporaries expected a damper of a convention since its main appeal would simply not exist on so many levels.

Then something wild happened.

Each year the convention features a Saturday night event called Melave Malka, the traditional meal held at the close of Shabbat. Since the thousands of Chabad rabbis all over the globe would be celebrating the conclusion of Shabbat at vastly different times, the organizers conceived a rolling Melave Malka event which started Saturday night in Australia while New York was still sleeping and as Shabbat concluded in more time zones other rabbis joined the program culminating with Alaska and Hawaii close to 24 hours later.

All went according to plan, until some rabbis in Australia woke up Sunday morning and, in the spirit of the convention, tuned into the Zoom program that was reaching its final minutes with our Hawaiin colleagues. The atmosphere was so joyous and compelling, they continued sharing chassidic stories, words of inspiration and camaraderie - which ultimately continued for a total of 138 hours!

The unending flow of Chassidic inspiration was electrifying and guys in multiple time zones were tuning in at all hours of the day and night, to the point that it was officially closed on Thursday evening with over 1,000 participants online. While the event set a record for the world’s longest Zoom meeting, more importantly, it transformed an otherwise forced online convention into the most inspirational convention experience we ever had. 

In this week’s parsha Toldos we learn how Yitzchak intended to bless his eldest son Eisav but blessed Yaakov instead, thanks to an elaborate deception arranged by their mother Rivka. The explanation of why this scenario of dishonesty was the right thing to do at the time is beyond the scope of this message, but the fact remains that the tremendous blessings of Jewish destiny came to us in an awkward and uncomfortable fashion. This teaches us that at times the best emerges from what can seem to be the worst.

I and my colleagues experienced it this week and I hope and pray we merit such a transformation on a global level as well. That these terribly dark and frustrating times imminently lead to a brighter future, the era of Moshiach, when the world will be healed of all illness, suffering and jealousy and peace will prevail for all.

Through learning more Torah, doing more Mitzvot, increasing our charitable giving and encouraging everyone to add in goodness and kindness we can make this happen even faster.

Just Do Your Job

 

In a non-COVID reality I would most certainly be in New York this weekend for the International Conference of Chabad Emissaries, where thousands of Chabad rabbis serving around the globe converge on Brooklyn to learn new ideas, share strategies and gain new inspiration to enhance our mission of preparing the world for an era of peace and perfection in every way.

But I’m writing this message from home, the legendary convention is happening entirely online this year and the overarching theme is obviously about continuing our vital work despite the global COVID disruptions.

Yesterday Chabad of Argentina was featured and I was inspired to hear how their activities are flourishing despite a seventh-month long national lockdown. Not only are they reaching more than triple their audience through online classes and events and social distancing holiday activities, but a young Chabad couple managed to create a vibrant community from scratch after moving to a new neighborhood in Buenos Aires mere weeks before the lockdown began!

Rabbi Grunblatt, the senior Chabad emissary in Argentina shared that the inspiration for this unending activity despite the challenges stems in part from an experience he had in 1982. Argentina was then under military rule and had just suffered a humiliating defeat in the Falklands against the British. In that chaotic political and economic environment, the young Rabbi Grunblatt struggled desperately to keep Chabad activities afloat, but one day found himself without enough money to pay the bus fare.

In despair he placed an international phone call to Chabad Headquarters in New York and expressed his frustration and fear of the future to Rabbi Hodokov, the Rebbe’s chief secretary. Almost immediately Rabbi Hodokov called him back with the offer of a loan and a message from the Rebbe. “You were not sent there to make political and economic calculations. Your mission is to strengthen Judaism and disseminate Chassidic teachings. G-d will help you succeed.”

In this week’s parsha Chayei Sara we read how Avraham sent his trusted servant Eliezer on the mission of finding a suitable wife for his son Yitzchok from his own family back in Charan - a shady corner of society at the time. Eliezer was plagued with doubt and uncertainty about his chances for success but Avraham assured him that G-d would help despite everything that could go wrong.

Expecting a long and arduous desert journey Eliezer packed 10 camels but miraculously arrived at his destination that very day towards evening. He made a deal with G-d that the first girl to offer him a drink of water would be the lucky match and even before he finished speaking Rivka was standing at the well and kindly served him a drink of water.

When everything worked out so perfectly in the most wondrous way, even Rivka’s father Besuel and her brother Lavan, two of the most debased and callous biblical characters were compelled to admit that it was the work of G-d.

The message is clear. Even when times are tough and the future so uncertain we have no business calculating our chances of success. Just do your job confidently and joyfully and G-d will take care of the rest.

 

Hachnasat Orchim: It’s more than just feeding people

 

The hospitality industry has taken a big hit during COVID. Global chains are closing hotels around the world and local Bed  & Breakfast style inns are finding it harder and harder to get by. On a more relatable level, the universal social etiquette of hosting has been severely compromised as we are warned to stay home as much as possible.

But hospitality is more than a business, a social venue or a charitable cause. For Jews, hospitality - Hachnasat Orchim in Hebrew - runs to the core of our heritage and is an important trait we learned from our first patriarch Avraham.

Living at the crossroads of civilization, in a barren desert connecting Africa and Asia, Avraham established an inn which exceeded all modern-day hotels in quality and customer service. Not only did he provide much needed food and water to the famished travelers, he planted an orchard to provide them with delicious fruits and a pleasant ambiance. Delicacies such as butter, meat and the like were on the menu and it was all free of charge. The only thing missing was WiFi.

The defining characteristic of this plush desert resort was the fact that there were four entrances so that guests coming from either direction would find the entrance quickly and easily. The elderly and venerable Avraham himself welcomed and served his guests, engaging them in meaningful conversations which made ideological waves across the globe.

In this week’s parsha Vayeira we learn how important this Mitzvah was to Avraham and how it came to define us as Jews. At age 99 he entered a covenant with G-d by having a circumcision and three days later, while in excruciating pain from the procedure, he experienced a divine revelation like none before. Yet, despite his physical pain and spiritual delight, when he spotted three travelers within earshot of his tent, he ran towards them and welcomed them into his tent with his traditional five-star service.

Clearly, the level of service that Avraham provided far exceeded his guests’s needs, but Hachnasat Orchim is about the host focusing on providing for another, even at his or her own expense. Avraham truly cared for every human being and therefore sought to provide for every one in the most luxurious fashion.

His nephew Lot was so influenced by Avraham’s teachings of compassion that despite breaking away from Avraham and settling in the sinful cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, he continued to observe the tradition of Hachnasat Orchim. The Sodomites outlawed hospitality, but when Lot spotted two men approaching Sodom one evening he risked his life to welcome them into his home.

The golden standard of Hachnasat Orchim is Avraham’s signature contribution to humanity; the ability to transcend our own comforts and focus on the needs of others. And while the current public health crisis severely hinders our ability to host guests in the traditional fashion, we must continue to care for each other and ensure our friends and neighbors not only have bare necessities but have access to luxuries as well.

Thank you to all those who partnered with us to prepare over 100 Shabbat Care packages of Challah and Matzah Ball soup for our community. We look forward to a time when we can host you all personally, but until then please enjoy these Shabbat delicacies as we all perpetuate Avraham’s glorious legacy of hospitality.

 

The Most Consequential Jew

 

Everyone wants to be consequential. Nearing election day I constantly hear that “this is the most consequential election in history.” Whether this assertion is true or not I fully understand the appeal it has. People appreciate doing important things and if voting is always important, how much more so if so much hangs in the balance and depends on my single vote.

Equally intriguing is the common discussion of who is the most important Jew to ever live. Since two Jews always produce three opinions I’m sure everyone reading this message has a different historical figure in mind, but I think we can all agree that Avraham, the first Jew, is definitely on all of our short lists. And for good reason; the first gets the credit for paving the way for the rest of us.

In this week’s parsha Lech Lecha we learn of the developing relationship between G-d and Avraham, which climaxed with them entering into an eternal covenant. G-d commanded Avraham to circumcise himself and all the male members of his household and to transmit this tradition to his descendants.

With the Mitzvah of Bris Milah the divine relationship between G-d and Avraham was no longer limited to the spiritual, intellectual and conceptual realm; it permeated the physical dimension as well.

Although the actual deed is exclusive to males, the covenant it represents is relevant to all Jews, females included. Throughout history Jewish women were equally involved in perpetuating the timeless Mitzvah of circumcision to the point of literal self sacrifice, because it is the bedrock of our Jewishness and links us to the unbreakable chain of our heritage.

This covenant is a joyous one and circumcision is customarily accompanied with a festive party celebrating this important milestone in the Jewish life cycle - but we all know that circumcision is a very painful experience. Why did G-d associate the bedrock of our Jewishness to something so painful?

Avraham gets the credit for being the trailblazer, the one who proved to the world that one can believe in the true G-d and overcome the unbearable challenges associated with going against the stream. All of us benefit from Avraham’s experience and when our Jewishness is challenged, the arc of history reminds us that Judaism ultimately prevails, cushioning the pain and suffering we may currently endure at the moment.

But nothing can prepare you for the physical pain of circumcision. The fact that many did it before you does not mitigate the natural pain, especially for an eight day old child. Everyone is the “first” when it comes to circumcision, and every Jew is the “first” and “most consequential” when it comes to our divine covenant.

Who is the most consequential Jew?

You are. Do something about it.

 

 

Causing Trouble - Together

 

Children are wonderful but when they cause trouble they need to be disciplined. Many parents will confess that when their kids get into trouble together, the joy of seeing their sibling cooperation on display - albeit for a naughty purpose - is so wonderful, and they dial down the scolding and punishing.

This week’s parshah Noach is all about disasters. First we learn that humanity deteriorated to the point that thievery, murder and promiscuity was the living standard; every man for himself in the most intense and gruesome fashion.

G-d was so disgusted and appalled by the moral and ethical state of affairs that a complete reset was needed. Every living specimen was annihilated from the face of the earth with only eight humans and a sample couple of each specimen miraculously surviving the year long disaster on the Ark to start it all up again.

After giving the world a good sanitizing G-d was confident humanity would never descend into such chaos and promised Noach such devastation would never happen again, placing the rainbow in the clouds as an assurance of that oath. Lo and behold, a few generations later, as humanity started repopulating the earth, they once again descended into the moral and ethical abyss.

The conspiracy theorists among them pontificated that the Great Flood would happen approximately every 1,500 and they needed to wage war with the vengeful G-d to ensure their legacy will not evaporate like that of the pre flood generation. Rallying the vast majority of civilization, they settled in the flatlands, built a huge city and in its center started constructing a massive tower meant to reach the heavens. They figured it was their best chance to beat G-d who threatened their eternal legacy.

In response to this blatant blasphemy G-d determined it was time to disperse humanity by robbing them of their ability to communicate with each other. Up until that point everyone spoke the same language. All of a sudden seventy new languages were transplanted into their minds and a new world order of seventy distinct nations - grouped together by their common language - emerged.

It was a traumatic transformation which caused much turmoil and quickly terminated the massive construction project.

Why was the pre flood generation annihilated while the post flood generation was merely dispersed? Surely attempting to wage war on G-d is a grave sin worthy of severe consequences. These two punishments are extremely disproportionate.

Our sages explain that the unity of the post flood generation was their saving grace. Although their sin was against G-d Himself, their cooperation and cohesion set them apart from the discord and chaos that characterized the pre flood generation. While building the massive tower to fight with G-d was bad and had to stop, their unity signaled the spark of morality and divinity still alive within them and the possibility for rehabilitation. When everyone's for themself, all hope is lost.

While there is certainly much that sets people apart from each other, remember that we are in the journey of life together, and emphasizing our commonality is the first step to preparing our world for its ultimate perfection in the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

 

 

 

Would you like to start from Genesis 1:1?

Shortly after Shainy and I moved to town ten years ago I developed an elevator pitch for starting private Torah sessions. “Have you ever studied the entire Torah from Genesis 1:1?

Whether the one being pitched accepted the offer or not, the pitch almost always elicited a thoughtful expression and a level of interest in the topic. Everyone would love to study the whole Torah.

Here is a trend about Bible knowledge I’ve discovered. Many have last heard Bible stories in their childhood and even more struggle with finding the relevance these stories have in our day-to-day lives.

This week we begin the Torah from the beginning and the opening storyline is already rife with plenty of questions. Granted it’s important to know that G-d created the world, but are the details necessary? Must we know what was created on each day of creation to appreciate that G-d is in control of reality?

Torah is not a book of history or law, rather a guide to life. So everything we read in the Five Books of Moses is meant to inform every detail of our lives. G-d expects us all to be creators as well and included His creation methodology in Torah so we can emulate it.

Let’s start with the first day of creation. “G-d said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.”

Intuitively light is associated with a source of light such as a light bulb, or at least to the sun. The problem is that the sun was created on the fourth day and there is no indication of any other known light source being around then. If the light created on the first day was not the light of the sun - what was its source? Besides, who needed light then anyway?

The Talmud explains that this initial light was of a more spiritual nature, eventually hidden from view by the naked eye, replaced by the light of the sun and other sources of light. The light of the first day represents divine clarity; the truth that G-d is present in every detail of creation. This knowledge was hidden from us in order to give us the opportunity of free choice; to choose right from wrong and good from evil.

This divine clarity was revealed at the beginning of creation to teach us that at the beginning of every endeavor the purpose and goal must be clear. Upon waking in the morning and embarking on a new journey to making our world a more perfect place one must take the time to meditate on the clear presence of G-d in our lives. Reciting Modeh Ani, wrapping Tefillin, giving charity and learning some Torah before diving into the daily grind will guide you to having a meaningful and accomplishing day.

And this is only just the beginning.

On November 10 we will begin a new JLI study series called Secrets of the Bible. We will discuss some of the most puzzling Bible narratives, dispel myths, discover mystical depth and most importantly find true relevance to our lives in a modern era. I invite you to join us on this incredible journey.

Please click here to learn more about the course and to register.

 

 

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