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Rabbis' Blog

Inspirational Torah Messages from Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso

My Phone went Swimming

It happened. The unthinkable. My phone fell into water for 5 seconds.

Seems like not such a big deal - but it was. Most of the features worked except for voice calls. Ironic?

The little water that seeped into the forbidden territory of my phone’s innards upended my morning schedule and I found myself in the nearest T-mobile store trying to get myself back on the grid.

Thankfully the phone was insured, but a replacement would take time to arrive and I needed  something ASAP. The helpful and well informed sales rep advised me to first file the insurance claim and only then switch my sim card to a new device. Otherwise the insurance company satellite won’t pick up the correct signal from the damaged phone.

Long story short, I didn’t ask too many questions, followed their advice step by step and less than an hour later life was back to normal.

In this week’s parsha we learn how Aharon and his sons were ordained as the Kohanim (priests) to serve in the Mishkan that was being constructed in the desert. Only they and their descendants are authorized to offer sacrifices and incense and to execute a host of other rituals observed in the Holy Temple.

They were inducted into the service by offering a specific formula of sacrifices and were ordered to wear a uniquely tailored uniform. The details were so important that the Torah reiterates the induction must be done in “this specific way” which leads our sages to state that “if Moshe omitted anything of all that was stated in the Torah dealing with this matter, Aharon and his sons would not be invested to be kohanim, and their service would be invalid.”

Plain and simple. If the formula is not followed accurately, the Mishkan is a waste of time.

Allowing a few drops of water to invade my phone caused it to malfunction. Had I rushed to switch my sim card to a substitute device before submitting my insurance claim I would lose out on the benefits of the plan. So I was glad to follow the sales rep's advice which made for a hassle free experience. My newly installed water heater was useless because the wrong valve was open and an email I recently sent was never delivered because I typed .con instead of .com in the address.

The same is true about Judaism. There is a specific formula to Torah study and mitzvah observance and it is crucial to do it right.

No need to panic. Mitzvot are fairly easy to observe when done accurately and Torah wisdom never conflicts with reality when understood in proper context.

The formula works.

 

Despite the Skeletons in the Closet

I recently presented the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (abridged version of the Code of Jewish Law) as a gift to a Bar Mitzvah boy, explaining that this was the most important book for a Jew. If you are stuck on an island and need one book that will guide 98% of your religious Jewish life, the Five Books of Moses will not be very helpful. You need the “Code” to explain how it all applies in real life.

Nevertheless, the Five Books of Moses are the anchor of our lives and the text we deal with on a constant basis. Not only do we read the weekly parsha on Shabbat during synagogue services, the entire week is defined by the parsha. For example: “The sixth day of parshat Teruma” is a legitimate description of today’s date in traditional Jewish circles.

It follows that the content of every verse in the Torah contains relevant meaning to us here and now.

For the next five weeks we learn of G-d’s instruction to construct a Temple and how the Israelites fulfilled this divine wish. “Make a sanctuary for Me (G-d) and I will dwell in their midst (Exodus 25:8).”

Although this  temporary structure, known as the mishkan, served as a divine dwelling for many years, it was not the ultimate realization of the command to construct a sanctuary. Certainly the main elements of the mishkan were later incorporated in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, but the wooden beams and beautiful tapestries were rendered obsolete.

Why then does the Torah devote hundreds of verses to describe the mishkan down to the beams and tapestries in such intricate detail? Because the temporary mishkan makes the whole idea of a Beit Hamikdash relevant in every time and every place.

The Beit Hamikdash represents the fact that G-dliness becomes a revealed part of our material lives. Just as a physical edifice becomes a dwelling for the Al-mighty, our personal lives can and must become reflections of a divine purpose.

Had the concept of a divine dwelling debuted in the holiest spot on earth - in Jerusalem - then our personal divinity would only be possible once we achieved personal spiritual perfection. But most of us are imperfect.

This is why the mishkan was constructed in a desolate wilderness. This is why the divine dwelling debuted in a space devoid of nourishment and rife with dangerous snakes and scorpions. To prove that even if one feels spiritually lifeless, with a shameful history filled with proverbial skeletons, he or she is capable and obligated to begin the task of creating a divine space within.

Keeping the Details Relevant

During Torah study sessions I often sense frustration about the fact that many laws in the Torah, Talmud and Code of Jewish Law are articulated in antiquated ways. A prime example would be this week’s parsha of Mishpatim with its discussions of slaves and pack animals - situations we hardly experience today.

Here is one verse to ponder (Exodus 23:5): If you see your enemy's donkey lying under its burden would you refrain from helping it? You shall surely help along with him.

When was the last time you encountered a donkey transporting a load for your enemy?

The main idea of the law is that one must set aside grudges and help another despite the natural instinct to retaliate for perceived misdeeds - a lesson that resonates in 2019 as it did over 3,000 years ago. But do the specific details of “the donkey lying under its load” speak to us here and now?

The Baal Shem Tov introduced an allegorical reading of the verse, extending the message to include a reference to the importance of preserving our physical health and fundamentally reframing our perspective on spirituality and holiness.

"When you see chamor, a donkey" - when you carefully examine your chomer ("materiality"), your body, you will see...

..."your enemy" - meaning, that your chomer (“materiality”) hates your Divine soul that longs for G‑dliness and the spiritual, and furthermore, you will see that it is...

..."lying under its burden" (the burden is Torah and mitzvot) placed upon the body by G‑d, namely, that it should become refined through Torah and mitzvot; but the body is lazy to fulfill them. It may then occur to you that...

..."you will refrain from helping it" - to enable it to fulfill its mission, and instead you will follow the path of mortification of the flesh to break down the body's crass materiality. However, not in this approach will the light of Torah reside. Rather...

..."you shall surely help along with him" - purify the body, refine it, but do not break it by mortification.

Generations ago pious men and women were under the mistaken impression that neglecting physical health was a pathway to spiritual greatness. Conversely, there are many of us today who feel that living a life of Torah and Mitzvot may pose a threat to our physical health and wellbeing or at least compromise our abilities to achieve financial stability and comfort.

This novel teaching of the Baal Shem Tov busts the myth of religious asceticism and illustrates how the specific wording of the verse - while perhaps antiquated in a literal sense - is still very much relevant in our quest for a healthy and proper relationship with G-d.

 

Judaism: An Integrated Experience

In my line of work I am frequently asked why G-d does not speak to us directly. If, for example, eating Kosher is so important, why do we not receive direct divine communication with all the detailed laws?

If G-d could speak to Moses why doesn’t He speak to me?

True. G-d could speak to us directly. But the last time it happened, we begged G-d to stop and never do it again!

Fifty days after the wondrous exodus from Egypt the Jewish nation experienced “Matan Torah” - the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. G-d communicated the first two of the Ten Commandments to the millions of people gathered at the mountain - an experience so intense and transcendent that they clamored for the spectacle to end.

Here is how it is recorded in this week’s parsha (Exodus 20:15-16):

And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar. They said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let G-d not speak with us lest we die."

G-d approved of this arrangement and from then on all divine communication happened through Moses and the subsequent prophets. While the revelation at Mt. Sinai was necessary to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Moses and his spiritual heirs were the legitimate transmitters of G-d’s will, it was meant to be a one-time event - never to happen again.

Why did G-d not make us all Moses-like, save us the trauma and continue to communicate with us directly?

Because Moses and the prophets are not regular people and our life experience is not meant to replicate theirs. Most mortals are created with an affinity to materialism while prophets get over that stuff from the get-go. See how Maimonides defines a prophet here.

But we are not all expected to live as prophets. In fact the Torah was given specifically to mortals susceptible to theft, murder, promiscuity, falsehood, jealousy and much more. Judaism is not an intense spiritual experience reserved for holy places and holy times. It is the very premise of life, integrated in every level of our consciousness, down the nitty gritty details of our eating habits and our most shameful impulses.

Applying Torah laws and ideals in the most mundane elements of life is the whole reason we were created in the first place and if we were all prophets, that experience would be moot.

So embrace your regularness and the opportunity to make our regular world a bit more divine. All it takes is learning some more Torah and doing another Mitzvah.


Getting Lost on our Road Trip

Last month we took a road trip to visit my brother’s family in Wichita, Kansas.

Since paper maps are a thing of the past, I opened the Waze app on my phone and discovered that the fastest and most direct route would be to drive on the 54 from El Paso straight to Wichita. With such simple directions I felt it unnecessary to pay attention to the app throughout the 12 hour ride.

At Vaughn, New Mexico the 54 makes a sharp left turn, while continuing straight on the road takes you south on the 285 — the exact opposite direction of our destination. I missed the turn and when I finally glanced at Waze close to 45 minutes later, we were rerouted through Amarillo and Oklahoma City, with an extra two hours to our estimated arrival time.

We were initially bummed, but got over it quickly and enjoyed the rest of our extended road time. (Paying attention to Waze!)

The story of Exodus features the very first GPS navigational system used by millions of people. The Torah records (Exodus 13:21–22) that as the Israelites left Egypt, G-d directed their journey to the Promised Land with a divine pillar of cloud during the day and a divine pillar of fire that led them through the night. Wherever these pillars went, the Israelites followed.

It would seem logical for G-d to direct the Israelites — anxious to inherit their homeland — on the fastest and most direct route possible. An amateur reading of a map of the area reveals that the Israelites traveled a roundabout route to Israel. In fact, the Red Sea is in the opposite direction!

However, this course was intentional. As the Torah states (Exodus 13:17): G-d did not lead them through Philistia, because it was nearby. For G-d said “The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.”

Why does the Torah explain G-d’s rationale in determining the itinerary? Because it provides the most valuable lesson you may ever need in life.

There were two options in mapping out the Israelite advance to Israel: The direct route or the roundabout route. Although the direct route was the swiftest, it was also the most challenging for the Israelites at the time. Since it was possible that they were incapable of handling the heat of battle and would retreat back to slavery, G-d steered them away from there. Even though the alternate route was also very challenging — getting stuck at the Red Sea wasn’t fun — G-d was certain they could handle it.

Whatever your circumstances, no matter how challenging they may be, know that G-d leads us only on paths He is certain we can succeed. Even if you find yourself wedged between a roaring sea and a murderous army — there is certainly a way forward.

Follow G-d’s instructions meticulously and even the worst situations may result in the greatest of miracles.

Putting it All on the Line

As a child I was raised with the stories of Chassidic resistance behind the Iron Curtain. About the heroic men and women who sacrificed everything in order to educate their children Torah and Jewish traditions. Not only did they risk their lives to make Judaism available to their own families, they made superhuman efforts to educate and assist others in remaining loyal Jews.

My ancestors were involved in these dangerous endeavors and I was privileged to hear first-hand accounts from the protagonists themselves.

Clearly, they were directly inspired by the example set forth by the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, whose Yartzeit will be observed on 10 Shevat, this coming Wednesday. He became the leader of the global Chabad Lubavitch movement in the spring of 1920, after his father’s passing, just as the Communists were beginning their reign of terror over Russia.

As the authorities destroyed organized Jewish life throughout the Soviet Union, the Previous Rebbe transformed his community of Chassidim into a massive network of activists, ready to preserve Jewish life underground at all costs.

The main targets of the anti-religious Soviets were the Jewish schools, and the Previous Rebbe and his Chassidim worked tirelessly, at great personal risk, to respond to this specific crisis.

When a Jewish school was shuttered, a Chabad Chossid showed up in town and provided Jewish classes for the local children. When he was caught and sent to the firing squad, a replacement was arranged immediately.

In 1927, the Previous Rebbe was arrested on charges of treason, and his life was spared only through tremendous miracles. His cardinal sin was providing Jewish education for the very young.

Many wondered why the Previous Rebbe, a venerable scholar in all areas of Torah, and a mentor and teacher to so many, chose to endanger every other demographic of Jewish life for the sake of ensuring young children learned the Alef Bet.

In this week’s Parsha, when Pharaoh realized that Egypt was on the brink, he tried negotiating with Moshe: Perhaps the adults can take a three day journey into the desert to serve G-d while the children remained as collateral to guarantee their return? Moshe refused, because although adults actually perform the service, the children are an integral part of the community.

Later in the Parsha, when G-d communicates the instructions of Pesach and other Mitzvot, He mentions on three separate occasions that the children will ask questions about the rituals and we are obligated to engage them on their level. Because education is the cornerstone of Judaism.

Just as in times of religious persecution the Previous Rebbe was ready to sacrifice everything else for the sake of the youth, today, in times of religious freedom, the Jewish education of our children must be our greatest priority.

It's More Fun that Way

I just visited a bedridden elderly gentleman. When I asked him how he is doing, he responded with a smile, “Pretty good considering the circumstances. But when you view circumstances as challenges to overcome, it’s more fun that way!”

His good cheer was a pleasure and our visit was quite enjoyable for both of us. He had so much wisdom to share and we had the opportunity to do the mitzvah of Tefillin together. But the most important lesson I walked away with was his perspective on circumstances: They are defined by your response.

In this week’s parsha we learn of when the Jewish people in Egyptian slavery reached rock bottom. It did not happen when there was no apparent redeemer on the horizon. Moshe had already arrived in Egypt with a message of freedom and had been verified by the experts to be legitimate.

However, when he started fulfilling G-d’s mission to impress upon Pharaoh to release the Jewish slaves, everything went downhill from there. Pharaoh made life unimaginably miserable for everyone and even Moshe was mortified with his failure.

G-d sent Moshe to the people with a newly worded message of freedom that surpassed all previous messages in confidence and divine revelation - but alas, his words fell on deaf ears. The situation was so bleak that they could not bring themselves to pay attention to the confirmed messenger of G-d.

It was at this low moment that everything started to change. The ten plagues commenced - a watershed moment in world history. Never before had the world witnessed such clear divine intervention in nature.

For example, during the first plague, the water did not just merely turn to blood. It became blood only for the Egyptians and not for the Israelites. This had nothing to do with different locations and water sources for if an Egyptian forced his Israelite slave to sip out of the same glass of water/blood drawn from the Nile River together with him, the Egyptian would drink blood and the Jew would drink water. The only way the desperate Egyptians were able to drink water during the week-long plague was if they would buy it from the Israelites.

The rest of the plagues were no less wondrous and the ultimate redemption that followed has ramification till today.

The lesson is clear. When the circumstances are the worst possible, all is not lost. Respond to them as challenges meant to be mastered and the results will be as wondrous and redeeming as Passover.

 Apparently they more fun that way as well.

How Will We Know He is Real?


Several weeks ago I had a fascinating conversation over Shabbat dinner about Moshiach. Our guest was shocked to discover that global redemption is a Jewish concept and even more surprised to discover how attractive and relatable it is: A perfect reality devoid of disease, war and strife is the type of world we all want for ourselves and our children and Moshiach will deliver it.

“But how will we know it is him?” he finally asked.

Important question.

Do we follow the lead of anyone claiming to possess the secret formula for curing the world of all its ills, promising to eradicate evil from our universe? How will we know he is legitimate?

In this week’s parsha we learn how Moshe was sent by G-d to lead the Jews out of Egyptian slavery. While the inevitable encounters with Pharaoh were certainly intimidating for the newly minted leader, Moshe was mainly concerned with this: Will the Jews accept him as the divinely ordained messenger to lead them to the promised land or will they ignore him?

In hindsight it is difficult to fathom how the Jews would reject Moshe. Who else can transform a staff into a snake, make water turn to blood and do all the other mind boggling miracles we speak about during the Seder, if not the legitimate prophet of G-d and the long awaited redeemer?

Nevertheless, when Moshe came to them with his message of redemption and displayed several miracles, the Jewish leadership hesitated until they conferred with the elderly Serach - daughter of Asher son of Yaakov. Blessed with longevity by her grandfather, she was still around when Moshe appeared on the scene and had a living memory of the tradition received from Yaakov 193 years earlier as to the specific message the authentic redeemer will transmit.

Moshe was accepted only after Serach confirmed that his message matched this tradition - miracles notwithstanding.

The story of Moshe’s confirmation sheds light on the clarity and legitimacy of Jewish tradition throughout history and how we will know who Moshiach is when the time comes.

We are not a gullible people desperately clinging to dreams of a better future from anyone willing to shout them from the rooftops.

Rather, we are heirs of a divine mandate to prepare the world for an era of perfect harmony through revealing divinity in every part of our universe which will be completed by Moshiach, whose qualifications and requirements are part of Jewish tradition codified by Maimonides here. Just as we know Tefillin are black and square and the beautiful fruit we bless on Sukkot is an Etrog and not a mango, we will recognize Moshiach when he comes.

Until that long awaited moment, we have the opportunity and obligation to hasten his arrival by doing even one more good deed, speaking another positive word or even thinking a good thought.

We can do this and no time is better than now.

The Winning Balance

 

Success in business is defined by growing capital, not by merely preserving it. If you invest $1,000 in a venture and get $1,000 back a year later - that's a business failure.

In this week's parsha we learn of Yaakov's blessing to his two grandchildren Menashe and Ephraim. When Yosef learned of his father's failing health he journeyed to Goshen with his sons to receive a final blessing.

Following protocol, Yosef placed his oldest son Menashe to Yaakov's right and Ephraim to his left, with the intention that when Yaakov (who was blind of old age) would lift his hands in blessing, the right hand would be placed on the head of the first born son.

To Yosef's disbelief, Yaakov lifted his right hand and intentionally placed it on Ephraim's head and his left hand on Menashe's head. “Father, not so,” he protested. “Menashe is the eldest, place your right hand on his head.”

Yaakov responded “I know my son. Menashe's descendants will be great too, but Ephraim's descendants will be even greater.”

As is the case with every episode in Torah, this story provides us with a timeless lesson. Their exchange represents a fundamental debate in Jewish life that resonates until today.

Yosef fathered his two sons in the midst of a painful separation from his family, living in the most spiritually challenging circumstances imaginable. He expressed the two conflicting drives animating his life by naming his sons Menashe and Ephraim.

Menashe represents the fact that “G-d has caused me to forget (nashani) my past hardships, but this success can cause me to forget all that I have held dear in my father’s household.” Yosef understood that his stratospheric political rise and financial prosperity carried with it the grave danger of assimilation. By naming his child for the new challenge he faced, he ensured that he always remember and remain true to his heritage.

Ephraim represents the fact that “G-d has made me fruitful (hifrani) in the land of my suffering.” Despite his unbearable pain, Yosef succeeded in transforming personal tragedy into an opportunity to bring divine awareness to Egyptian society.

In the endless debate of how to ensure Jewish continuity there are those who opt to isolate themselves, to protect the spiritual integrity of those who are already committed to a Torah lifestyle, versus those who insist on spreading the word to the entire world, even at the risk of exposure to spiritual challenges.

Yosef’s priority was to remember his roots and never lose touch with his spiritual sensitivity, and named his eldest Menashe. Yaakov, as the leader and prophet of the generation, placed a premium on Yosef’s success in his mission to bring divine morals and ethics to a place of darkness and depravity, and placed his right hand on Ephraim.

Although our main purpose is to bring the light of Judaism to every corner of the earth, at the same time it is crucial to immunize ourselves to the challenges that abound outside the cocoon of spiritual bliss.

We must strike the winning balance.

Long Term Inspiration

 

When saying farewell there is often an urge to share something meaningful to make the separation less painful. An anecdote, lesson for life or even a joke can do the trick, but then there are parting words that can change the course of history.

In this week's parsha, Yaakov and Yosef’s long and painful seperation comes to a happy ending. After revealing himself to his brothers in one of the most dramatic episodes recorded in the Torah, Yosef urged them to travel swiftly back to their father to deliver the good news.

When they notified Yaakov that Yosef was alive and the monarch of Egypt, his heart went numb. Only after hearing the details of their discussions and upon seeing “the wagons Yosef had sent to him”, then he rejoiced in the sensational news of the discovery of his long lost son.

Why did Yaakov pause in his reaction and what was so exciting about the wagons?

Our sages explain that when Yaakov realized Yosef had spent twenty two years in Egypt and had risen to such prominence, he feared that his stratospheric promotion came with the deterioration if his moral and ethical lifestyle. After all, Egypt was the global capital of depravity and promiscuity at the time.

But “the wagons” reassured him. The Hebrew word for “wagon” is “Aggala” and the same letters in the identical order can be read as “Egla” which means “calf.” Yosef confided to his brothers that the final Torah lesson he learned from his father was the details of the mitzvah called “Egla Arufa” - the decapitated calf.

During the Holy Temple era, if a Jew was found dead on the road and the murderer was unknown, the elders of the closest village to the crime scene were obligated to bring a calf to the nearest valley, decapitate it, wash their hands over it and announce “Our hands did not spill the blood (of the murdered person) and we did not witness it either.”

While there is certainly no suspicion that the town elders are directly responsible for the murder, there is an obligation for every Jewish community to ensure that passing travelers are well fed, and are escorted on the road for some distance. The elders are announcing that they have done their part in ensuring that no traveler was abandoned. The Mitzvah of “Eglah Arufa” enshrines the communal obligation to provide the needs of every individual, even a traveling stranger.

The spiritual message of this Mitzvah is the importance to provide spiritual nourishment and strength even to Jews who are traveling away from the established Jewish infrastructure. Inspire them to continue learning Torah and doing Mitzvot even in the spiritual wilderness, thereby protecting themselves from foreign influences and enabling them to elevate and transform the spiritual wilderness into a beautiful oasis of goodness and kindness.

By divine providence this was Yaakov's parting message to Yosef before he, unbeknownst to both of them, set out on a physically and spiritually treacherous journey. And the spirit of this message served as his inspiration to not only remain true to his heritage, but to have a positive impact on the entire society as well.

When Yaakov realized this, his spirit was refreshed and he rejoiced in the long awaited reunion.

This lesson beacons to us today to transform every spiritual wilderness into a divine dwelling by doing an extra Mitzvah and learning more Torah every day and to inspire others to do the same.

 

When Contradictions Make Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

One Small Interaction Saved the Entire World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving What You Do Instead of Doing What You Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Travel Buddies

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Camouflaged Jew

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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