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Rabbis' Blog

“Why would a Jew live in El Paso?”

“Why would a Jew live in El Paso?” I’m asked this question all the time and while there are many good responses, it’s worth reflecting on the question more broadly: what motivates Jews to live wherever they live? Do financial stability or other material and religious factors strictly dictate our choice of residence, or is there something else at play here?

In this week’s parsha we learn about our forefather Yaakov who was forced to flee from his brother Eisav’s murderous rage and seek refuge far away from home with his swindling uncle Lavan. On the way, he stopped at the (future) Temple mount during the evening to pray and during his sleep dreamed of a wondrous vision of angels ascending and descending a huge ladder connecting heaven and earth.

During the vision, G-d promised him safety, food, and shelter on his journey into the unknown and that he would eventually return home to the land promised to his ancestors that will be inherited by his descendants.

This vision is the opening act of perhaps the most decisive chapter in the creation of the Jewish nation. Avraham the first Jew, had two sons, only one of which continued his legacy of devotion to G-d. Yitzchak had twin boys, one of which became a notorious gangster, far removed from all monotheistic ideals. Yaakov was the first to raise a family of twelve sons who each represented a unique path of divine service that shaped Judaism forever.

Yaakov’s tremendous educational success is even more striking in light of the fact that he raised his family far away from the spiritual cocoon of the Holy Land. Perhaps these words from the divine vision explain why this is. “And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward.”

G-dliness must not be manifest exclusively in Israel. The entire earth is meant to be a paradise of divine goodness and peace. Yaakov did not choose to live in Charan, he was sent there by G-d to raise a Jewish family in the moral wastelands of Charan, with no holy environmental support system, proving that divinely guided morality is possible everywhere in the world “westward and eastward and northward and southward.” When that happens, everyone in the family is permeated with this conviction and remains part of the team.

Jews today bear the distinction of having a presence, or at least a history, in every corner of the globe. After the destruction of the second Holy Temple G-d intended for us to prepare the world for an everlasting era of true global peace and tranquility that will be ushered in with the arrival of Moshiach and the construction of the indestructible Third Holy Temple.

To accomplish this, the Jewish message of divinely guided morality must reach every location on the globe without exception. That’s why a Jew lives in El Paso and anywhere else in the world; we were sent here by G-d to prepare the world for the era of global peace we all so desperately pray begins right away.

 

The Young Emissaries

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Last week Menachem and I traveled to New York for the annual conference of Chabad Lubavitch emissaries. Menachem joined the three-day overnight camp together with two thousand “young emissaries” from around the world, while I spent my time at workshops, celebrations, and networking with thousands of my colleagues.

It was a special weekend, with many memorable moments, but I’d like to share one episode that to me crystalized the entire conference and the global phenomenon of Chabad today. During the banquet held on Sunday evening, there was a video presentation highlighting seven emissaries representing seven decades of Chabad’s global work from the 1950s to the present.

Rabbi Berel Mochkin of Montreal Canada represented the pioneering emissaries of the 1950s and Rabbi Dovi Henig of Chengdu, China represented my generation of thirty-year-olds.

Upon arriving in Chengdu Rabbi Henig and his wife were “invited” to the local police station and “interviewed” separately. The communist authorities were curious to understand why the young couple moved there, and he patiently explained that they simply wished to service the ever-growing community of Jewish businesspeople and tourists with all their Jewish needs by setting up a synagogue and community infrastructure.

After a lengthy conversation, the officer pulled out a photo of the Rebbe from his desk drawer and asked “Who is this man to you?” Rabbi Henig had no patience to explain what exactly a Rebbe is and simply replied “He’s my father.”

The officer picked up the phone, dialed a number, conversed briefly in mandarin, and then asked “So Rabbi Freundlich (the Chabad emissary) in Beijing is your brother?”

The huge ballroom erupted in a thunderous laugh at the punchline, but it was a knowing and appreciative one. This was not a conference of colleagues with similar careers; it was a family reunion.

This week’s Parsha begins “And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac.” Our sages explain that with this repetitive sentence the Torah teaches us that not only was Isaac the biological son of Abraham, but he was also the spitting image of his father physically and spiritually, to the point that all who saw them immediately concurred that it was so. Despite their 100-year age gap, there was no generational gap between them at all.

The same is true about Chabad. Although the mission of our generation, to bring Judaism to every corner of the world, was launched by the Rebbe in 1950, its relevance, impact, and passion of the emissaries have not changed at all. The 80-year-old Rabbi Mochkin and 30-year-old Rabbi Henig shared the same stage as brothers with the same objective: to reflect the Rebbe’s love and dedication to every Jew wherever they may be.

That’s why Menachem’s three-day overnight camp is called “Conference of Young Emissaries” instead of “Children of Emissaries Conference,” because our mission transcends all ages and stages and is open to everyone who wishes to participate. Preparing the world for the era of true peace and kindness with the arrival of Moshiach.

 

Caring for everyone

Living Jewishly can become routine, especially in quiet times between holidays. However, although most days are identical to each other in scheduling and practice, Jewish life provides a dynamic change of scenery every single day of the year.

The Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad movement in the 1770s, entered his study hall in a small Russian town and declared "We must live with the times" and returned to his study. His students were perplexed at the announcement as it seemed to contradict the very premise of the Chassidic lifestyle. To "live with the times" means following the ever-changing fashion trends and adopting the fluctuating morals dictated by society. Being a chossid means transcending all the nonsense and focusing on what is truly timeless.

It turned out the Rebbe was referring to the Torah portion (parsha) of the week. We complete the entire Torah each year by reading another portion during synagogue services on Shabbat. The portion is divided into seven parts called Aliyot and before and after each Aliyah someone else is honored to recite the blessing on the Torah.

The fact that the weekly parsha is divided into seven subsections is not only highly symbolic of Shabbat being the seventh day of the week. It makes the Torah portion relevant to the entire week, not just Shabbat. In fact, one of the ways to write the date on a letter or document in Torah culture is by writing “6th of Vayeira” which would mean “Friday of the week we read the parsha of Vayeira.”

This is what the Alter Rebbe meant about “living with the times.” On Sunday, the content of the first Aliya of the parsha we are scheduled to read the coming Shabbat is the Torah message we must live with on that day. On Monday the second Aliya and so on. In order to live with it one needs to learn it. That’s why it’s crucial to learn the daily Torah portion every single day.

On Sunday I studied in the beginning of this week’s parsha about Avraham’s golden standard of hospitality through which he shared the awareness of G-d with the entire world. He welcomed everyone into his tent and personally served them the best foods until they were nourished and satisfied and then inspired and sometimes cajoled them into thanking G-d for the food. He was a man with a divine mission that consumed his entire life.

On Monday the Torah describes how G-d decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorra due to their institutionalized moral depravity. They were greedy, stingy, deplorable, and ungrateful heathens; the polar opposites of Avraham. Nevertheless, he went out on a limb to argue with G-d not to destroy the cities. Without suggesting that he will assume responsibility for their moral rehabilitation Avraham declared that the presence of at least some good people in those cities should spare the rest. 

Although he was not successful, Avraham’s argument with G-d is profoundly meaningful. At great personal risk, he tried to help even those who were diametrically opposed to his ideals and way of life. Avraham inspires us today to learn to disagree with others while still respecting them as fellow human beings and caring for them as well.

 

When kids ask too many questions

My children ask many questions and as a parent, I try to answer to the best of my ability. Some answers I know off the cuff, while others can be found in books or on Google, and sometimes I need to think deeply before formulating a response. Their questions are typically motivated by their experiences and childish observations, and they are never inhibited by self-consciousness to refrain from asking “a stupid question.”

I am often enriched by searching for these answers, but the greatest gift of all is learning from them the value of wanting to know more and not taking things for granted. Why does “green light” mean “go” and “red light” mean “stop?” Why do some foods need to be cooked while others are eaten raw? I admit the incessant questions can irritate me sometimes, but I am reminded that Judaism exists only because a young child would not stop asking questions.

One of the earliest stories I recall from my childhood is about Abraham discovering G-d. At age three he realized a molten image that can be tossed around could not possibly be the creator of heaven and earth and, undeterred by his parents’ refusal to engage in the conversation, started searching for the most powerful force in the world.

Observing the sun hovering high above in the sky providing light and warmth for the entire world he determined it was the most powerful, but realized his mistake when the moon took its place at night. His honest and thorough investigation led him to discover that G-d is invisible, omnipotent, and omnipresent, contrary to the prevailing zeitgeist of idolatry. It was an evolving internal journey with major breakthroughs at age forty and forty-eight respectively until Abraham achieved the most profound divine consciousness available to man at the time.

G-d’s love for Abraham is unparalleled throughout the biblical narrative, and for good reason. But this relationship only happened, and the Jewish nation is here today because Abraham never stopped asking questions and searching for answers as a young child. He rejected the heathen worship of his elders and charted a new path for humanity by sharing his knowledge and faith with everyone in his time. The world is a more tolerant and peaceful place today because of an inquisitive three-year-old child.

We have much to learn from Abraham’s faith, sacrifice, kindness, and dedication, but the most empowering lesson of all is the importance of always learning and growing in our understanding of G-d. Unfortunately many are led to believe that asking questions about G-d is sacrilegious or a sign of rebellion. As long as we are searching for truth and not looking for excuses to shirk our responsibilities as Jews, learning more about G-d is the most Jewish thing we can do.

This Tuesday we start a new six-week course entitled My G-d: Defining the Divine. A fast-paced, fun and informative academic journey exploring the answers to 25 major questions about G-d and I invite you to join me on this theological adventure.

Click here to learn more about the course.

Click here to register.

 

 

The Nazis tattooed “Life” on my arm

Shainy’s grandmother, Mrs. Itu Lustig was interviewed this week in her Brooklyn home by Dana Arschin from the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center (Long Island, NY). After surviving Auschwitz as a young teenager, she went on to raise a beautiful family. The full interview will be released over the next several months, but a 38-second excerpt of it was posted online a few days ago and is currently going viral on social media.

As she spoke of the infamous numbers the Nazis sadistically tattooed on the concentration camp inmates, she showed the numbers on her arm and described the pain as “like giving you fifty shots in your hand without any protection.” Then she said something incredible. “They wrote on me… what G-d wanted to happen to me. They wrote  Chai, which means Life!”

Her number is A-7443. The sum total of all four numbers is 18 (7+4+4+3=18), which in Jewish numerology spells out the word “Chai - Life.” I’m so moved by the fact that the scar which is perhaps the most visible and inescapable part of her excruciating suffering, came to embody what she felt was her mission in the aftermath of it all.

Overcoming trauma is an important issue we encounter today on many levels, and while I’m not comparing traumas - surely not to the experiences of holocaust survivors - there is something in this clip I believe can help us appreciate a Torah truth about all trauma.

In this week’s parsha we learn how humanity spiraled uncontrollably to the depths of moral depravity and G-d decided to destroy humanity and all the animals through a great flood. A new world would eventually emerge from Noach, his children, and a representation of every animal species, who survived the destruction on a huge lifeboat, popularly known as an ark.

Imagine watching everything you know being washed away by a flood while you float around in an ark. The ark could have entombed them all in their misery. However, the fact that all the animals lived together peacefully in the ark indicates the messianic energy of divine peace and tranquility was present the entire time. This spirit inspired them to leave the ark and repopulate the earth after the flood, preparing it for a time when G-d’s presence will be felt all over the world, and peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Mrs. Lustig was unaware of the hidden message in the numbers tattooed on her arm until a teenage Yeshiva student pointed it out to her several years ago. But her ironclad faith in G-d motivated her to walk out of the inferno of death and destruction, to bring more life into the world.

Never allow bad experiences to break you. Have faith in G-d and know that every moment of life is precious and full of divine potential only you can realize.

 

Creating a New World

 

“If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” I appreciate the value in such caution, and often go along with this line of thinking, but Judaism demands we should be bolder than those who try fixing unbroken stuff.

On Simchat Torah this past Tuesday we completed reading the entire Torah and immediately started from the beginning. This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Bereishit, because we read the Torah’s opening narrative of creation and early civilization called Parshat Bereishit.

The fact that the Torah begins with creation is puzzling because “Sefer Torah” means guide book and not history book. It follows that perhaps the most appropriate opening for the Torah would have been the first commandments G-d communicated to the Jewish people through Moses. What guidance can we glean from learning how G-d created heaven and earth?

One of the most famous blessings in Judaism is the Hamotzi blessing for Challah or bread. Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d King of the universe who brings forth bread from the ground.

This language is peculiar since the last time I checked, bread doesn’t grow from the ground. Bread is the final product produced by people harvesting grain that grows from the ground, grinding the kernels into flour, kneading the flour into a dough and baking it in an oven. Our sages were certainly aware of this process, so why did they compose such a blessing?

G-d created a perfect world with the intention that humans will make it even more perfect. Although wheat is perfect, it has minimal nutritional value unless we humans turn it into bread. The genius of this arrangement is that instead of being passive receivers with no investment in game, we become active partners in the divine enterprise called creation. We are empowered to be “creators” and the Hamotzi blessing celebrates our partnership with G-d in creation.

The same is true about humanity. G-d created Adam and Eve perfectly, but gave them full autonomy over their behavior, with the mission of ensuring human life evolved in accordance with G-d’s will, with peace and tranquility for all. The record shows that early humans failed miserably on many fronts. It follows that we are G-d’s partners in creating the perfect society. G-d will not do it for us.

Torah begins with creation to inform us that its guidelines are not merely a religious creed for a select few to live more spiritually, rather a template for how we can be G-d’s partners in creating a brand new world. We read this story at the beginning of the new year, because now is the time to decide how we are going to make this new world. Commit to more Torah study, do another mitzvah and influence others to do the same, and together we will experience the brilliant era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

The Giant Huddle

 

I remember playing sports as a kid, we would have random team huddles in the middle of the game. Sometimes we discussed the next play, but more often it was about getting pumped up for the win. In the real world, militaries have parades, corporations host associate retreats and extended families have reunions. Nothing imbues a soldier with fighting pride like a grand military parade, retreats galvanize business associates into a team with vision and family reunions are about more than just getting to know more relatives.

In this week’s parsha Moshe gives the Israelites some final instructions before conquering and settling in the Land of Israel. The last two mitzvot recorded in the Torah are the obligations to write or own a Torah scroll, and for every Jew to come to the Holy Temple for the holiday of Sukkot in the year following the Sabbatical Shemitah year for the grand Hakhel event.

The fact that these two mitzvot serve as the roundup of all 613 means that they serve as important anchors for Jewish life - perhaps unnecessary during the 40 years we sojourned in the desert - but crucial to our survival in the Holy Land. Writing a Torah scroll was impossible before Moshe’s final day, because the biblical narrative includes the events of his passing. It’s also obvious why the written record was only necessary once the divine messenger of G-d’s commandments was no longer with us. (Today this mitzvah is observed through purchasing a letter in a Torah scroll or purchasing Torah books for personal study.)

But why do we need Hakhel? A mass assembly of men, women and children is hardly the setting for innovative Torah discussion and no new information was shared. So why must every Jew come to the same place, at the same time to hear the king read chapters from Deuteronomy?

Maimonides describes the awesome event as a reenactment of Matan Torah - the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. When all the Jews stood at the foot of the mountain and heard G-d speak to them the Ten Commandments, they learned nothing new. It was an empowering and elevating experience to set them on the path to be G-d’s ambassadors of divine light, moral clarity and peace to the world. They were imbued with identity, purpose and pride.

Living in the desert surrounded by G-d’s protective clouds and nourished by His heavenly food, that inspiration never waned. But the distractions of real life they would encounter in Israel and elsewhere posed a serious threat to the awareness of their global mission.

That’s why G-d instructed us to do Hakhel. The experience of standing together with all Jews in the holiest place on earth to hear G-d’s messenger recite such essential verses as Shema Yisroel and the Ten Commandments refreshed our ancestors’ Sinai inspiration. It motivated them to intensify their commitment to Jewish living and education and reminded them that every Jewish community or single individual must serve as an example of moral clarity and peace for all humanity.

Hakhel is the giant huddle that reminds us we are G-d’s team, but it can only happen in its biblically prescribed format when there is a Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Today Hakhel must be done by each and every one of us by gathering Jews together in a holy environment, sharing inspiring words of Torah with them and doing Mitzvot together . Remind yourself and others that we are all part of a huge team of Jews spanning the generations back to Moshe, dispersed around the world, to bring G-d’s message to all humanity.

This is the Hakhel year. Please join our Hakhel Team and make at least one “Jew Huddle” this year. chabadelpaso.com/hakhelteam

New Year’s Resolution

My family went on our annual pomegranate harvest outing yesterday to pick the best ones to grace our Rosh Hashanah dinner table together with the round challah, apples, honey and other delicious dishes symbolizing the sweet new year to come. But we all know Rosh Hashanah is not all about food, and in addition to hearing the Shofar and participating in synagogue services, making a New Year’s resolution is an important way of giving it our best when asking G-d for an amazing new year. I don’t usually do this, but I’d like to propose a unique resolution you can make specifically for the new year 5783.

This year is different than most other years since it is called “Hakhel.”

Hakhel means to assemble or gather. In the times of the Holy Temple, in the year following Shemittah (the Sabbatical year when all field work is prohibited in Israel once every seven years), all Jewish men, women and children made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the holiday of Sukkot for a very special event. At the appointed time they all gathered in the Holy Temple and heard the king read certain chapters from the Torah.

This replicated the Giving of the Torah that happened many years earlier at Mount Sinai, and refreshed the feelings of awe and dedication to G-d we all felt as a nation then. The experience was so powerful that it inspired the nation to intensify their commitment to Jewish life and education for the next seven years. It also facilitated tremendous Jewish unity.

The year 5782 was Shemittah (Sabbatical), so 5783 is Hakhel. Although we cannot observe Hakhel in the literal sense in the absence of the Holy Temple, its energy is available to us this coming year, just like all Holy Temple ideas continue to be  spiritually and personally relevant everywhere and at all times. We can and should tap into this Hakhel spirit by utilizing gatherings to promote a Jewish message, inspirational Torah ideas, and to do mitzvot together.

Doing Hakhel isn’t complicated. All you need is three things; people (a minimum of two), an influencer and Torah inspiration to share. Opportunities abound. Sharing a Torah thought or story at the dinner table, before a business meeting, in the middle of a party or while on an outing are all Hakhel events you can make happen. These examples may seem simple and elementary but you must make a conscious effort to have a Torah idea in mind and actually share it. Of course, participating in Torah classes or Jewish events and gatherings where Torah thoughts are shared and mitzvot are done are also opportunities to get involved with Hakhel.

As a new year’s resolution I invite you to commit to “doing Hakhel” at least twice a month. If you’d like to solidify your Hakhel commitment, please join our Hakhel team at chabadelpaso.com/hakhelteam and I will be happy to guide you with Hakhel throughout the year.

May the oncoming year of Hakhel bring us closer together and infuse us with inspiration and purpose.

Best wishes to you and yours to be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet new year.

First Class Judaism

The 36th Anniversary Gala held at Chabad on Sunday was fantastic, with delicious food, first class entertainment and wonderful company. The effusive feedback I’ve been hearing all week centered around how enjoyable the evening was, and I’m thankful to all who were able to join us in celebrating this special milestone. Please enjoy the photo album here.

In this week’s parsha we learn about the mitzvah of Bikkurim. Owning an orchard in the Land of Israel comes with many obligations. When a Jew noticed the first fruits budding, he wrapped a red string around the stems designating the first and best fruits as consecrated gifts to G-d called Bikkurim.

During the summer months entire communities made the pilgrimage to the Holy Temple with much fanfare. Holding the consecrated Bikkurim fruits in baskets adorned with doves, Jerusalem’s finest greeted the pilgrims as they marched to the Holy Temple with music, pomp and ceremony.

After placing the baskets near the altar the orchard owner offered a prayer of 63 words describing the slavery and exodus from Egypt and gratitude to G-d for gifting us the Holy Land. The fruits were then given to the Kohanim (priests) to enjoy with their families.

Bikkurim is not the only agricultural tax one needed to separate in order to partake from the harvest, but its seeming contradictory uniqueness teaches us a profound lesson in Jewish living today.

All other food taxes were given directly to the beneficiaries and not brought to the Holy Temple. All other consecrated foods brought to the Holy Temple were either entirely or partially consumed by the altar’s fire, whereas the Bikkurim fruits were not burned at all and instead fully enjoyed by the Kohanim. See the contradiction here?

Additionally, one can argue that although giving fruits to the Kohanim may be understandable, why must it be the choicest of my crop? Doesn't common sense dictate I deserve to enjoy the best fruits of my labor? It also dictates that spirituality should be devoid of physical enjoyment (represented by the altar’s fire burning up sacrifices) and physicality is not the forum for spiritual elevation or self improvement. Changing our attitude about the best fruits can give us a better perspective on the relationship between the spiritual and the physical.

The prayer recited with Bikkurim concluded “And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which you, O L-rd, have given to me.” When we appreciate the truth that all we have is from G-d, it becomes obvious that the choicest fruits must be given to G-d and the physical can become holy as well. Fasting and frugality are not the only routes to spiritual refinement. The best the world can offer, when used with the right attitude,  brings us closer to G-d as well.

Kosher cuisine can be delicious, synagogues should be stunning and Jewish celebrations ought to be first class. That’s the Bikkurim way of doing Judaism.

 

 

The Queen In Me

I imagined in our modern era, blessed to have democracy in most civilized countries, a sovereign’s death would not be a big deal. But not only did Queen Elizabeth's passing grab global headlines, it felt consequential to me as well. I never lived in her majesty's kingdom, know very little about her, and my best guess is the financial markets or the global balance of power will not be affected. So why do I care?

Reigning for over seventy years is a historic accomplishment, compounded by the fact that she preserved the prestige and relevance of her throne, despite the clamor for ending the monarchy in the United Kingdom, which is entirely ceremonial today. But if she largely had no impact on the operations of government nor set policies even within her own kingdom, why was she such a global icon?

As Jews, our relationship with the institution of monarchy is complicated. We haven’t had our own for thousands of years, and the last two millennia of exile have sadly provided no shortage of czars, emperors and kings who made our lives miserable. Yet, we continue to revere the concept as a ubiquitous title and analogy for G-d. The High Holidays liturgy richly describes G-d’s sovereignty as king and the Talmud and Midrash are filled with king and queen themed parables. Surely there is something about the monarchy we can all relate to and learn from - even today when practical day-to-day life manages without it.

Historically many kings and queens were tyrants and heartless killers, but the organic definition of a monarch is the benevolent benefactor and protector of every single subject. Maimonides defines the monarch as “the heart of the nation.” Just as the heart gives life to every organ of the body, the monarch is the essence of the nation and its source of life. Once upon a time this meant every aspect of life was controlled by the monarchy. Today the monarchy embodies that which transcends the dreary details of daily living: the heart uniting the nation.

Judaism teaches that every person is a monarch in microcosm. Every individual is a composite of many ideas, inclinations, drives and emotions and everyone is gifted the “monarch quality” - the ability to be mindful of the broader perspective and the ultimate goals that transcend all the confusing details. When confronted with contradictory choices and messy situations, deploying that personal monarch allows for clarity and purpose.

Throughout life, the impact of your personal monarch broadens. I don’t mean the ability to control others, but the mandate to remind others of what really matters. Parents must provide a brood of children a strong sense of family, and community leaders need to inspire a diverse group of people with a sense of shared purpose and commitment.

The fact that Queen Elizabeth was such a global icon without wielding the power of the sword or the purse illustrates how we can do the same in our personal lives and domains. Remember the important things in life and seek to be an inspiration to your ever broadening circles of family and friends.

 

Prophecy in our times

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader died this week and his historic role of presiding over the dissolution of the communist regime is important to me as a Jew and personally as well. My maternal grandfather escaped the Soviet Union in 1947 as a teenage fugitive and my paternal grandfather endured seven harrowing years of forced labor in Stalin’s gulags for attempting the same. My father was born near Moscow, and his family miraculously emigrated to Israel in 1966, 25 years before the evil empire collapsed.

Professor Herman Branover, a Refusenik for over 15 years who eventually emigrated to Israel in the early 1970s, continued working on behalf of Soviet Jewry at the Rebbe’s behest and direction. In the spring of 1985, weeks after Gorbachev came to power, the Rebbe instructed Dr. Branover to notify his contacts back in Russia that the situation will change, and very soon every Jew will be allowed to emigrate. This was before the onset of Perestroika.

Despite his tremendous surprise and incredulity at such a prediction, he called his friends and communicated the Rebbe’s message in the codes they knew so well.

“How could that be?” one Refusenik asked. “I am under 24-hour surveillance from the KGB. One of their cars is parked outside my building as we speak!”

In 1987, months before President Reagan declared “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the Rebbe set in motion an operation to construct thousands of homes in Israel for the Soviet Jews that would emigrate imminently. Again, no one appreciated the urgency of the matter, because the Iron Curtain seemed impregnable as ever.

A few years later, the Soviet Union was gone and while hundreds of thousands of Jews left, the underground Jewish infrastructure that survived over seventy years of persecution started flourishing openly.

Gorbachev visited Israel in 1992 and at a ceremony held in his honor at Ben Gurion University, Dr. Branover shared with the former president how the Rebbe had predicted this outcome in the spring of 1985. “How did he know that then?” he exclaimed. “Even I could not foresee these developments in 1985!”

Click here to watch how Dr. Branover tells this story.

In this week’s parsha we learn about prophets in Jewish life. In addition to communicating divine messages, predicting future events is integral to the role of the prophet and the basis of his or her legitimacy. Most people crave to know the future to take advantage of the markets or manipulate political power. In Judaism, however, the purpose of prophecy is to inspire us to remain loyal to G-d through learning Torah and doing Mitzvot, and to remind us that even if the world may seem to be going in the wrong direction, the future is brighter than ever.

In every generation there have been prophets in various formats, and the Rebbe declared that the ultimate redemption is imminent. The messianic era of world peace and tranquility our prophets predicted thousands of years ago will occur in our times and we can hasten its onset through increasing acts of goodness and kindness.

 

100 episodes and counting!

Today, with immense gratitude to G-d, I am pleased to release the 100th episode of Project 613. Three and a half months ago the annual Maimonides study cycle began and I reached out to the community to gauge the interest in receiving short (3 minutes) daily videos covering all 613 mitzvot of the Torah within a year. It was exciting and humbling to see over 100 people sign on to receive direct messages every day with video and audio links. Now, 100 episodes and 205 mitzvot later, “Project 613” has reached a new stage.

On a personal level, recording these videos consistently has been both challenging and fulfilling. Daily Torah study is critical to Jewish living and self growth and the opportunity to teach Torah every day is truly a gift. The feedback and questions from the viewers and listeners - through private messages or in-person conversations - assures me the feeling is mutual.

The timing of this milestone is serendipitous because this week’s parsha expresses the importance of knowing to identify the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.

As the Israelites were poised to enter the Promised Land without Moshe at their lead, he prepared them for a time when they would need to weed out false prophets and charlatans from legitimate messengers of G-d. Pious looking men or women may try to lead you astray from serving G-d by delivering false prophecies, Moshe warned. Even if they perform great wonders and predict the future, you must always beware of the messages they communicate.

How can we separate fact from fiction, prophecy from fable? The entire discussion is prefaced with this statement: “Everything I command you that you shall be careful to do it. You shall neither add to it, nor subtract from it.” (Deuteronomy 13:1)

On the surface, this instruction contradicts the historical fact that for generations Jews adopted numerous customs and observances, such as lighting the Menorah on Chanukah and celebrating Purim. How is this possible if the Torah warns against adding or subtracting from the commandments?

While there is certainly room for discovery and innovation in Jewish life, it can only happen within the context of the tradition we received through Moshe. Claiming there is a 614th mitzvah is as problematic as claiming there are only 612 mitzvot, and is one of the hallmarks of false prophecy. Even when certain mitzvot cannot be fulfilled due to circumstances beyond our control, they remain an integral part of Torah, and when new observances are adopted, they are clearly marked as a rabbinic mitzvot, not new biblical commandments. Bottom line, knowing the 613 mitzvot is important.

Education was always the bulwark against the chaos and confusion diverse false prophets tried to sow in the Jewish community and it remains the most potent tool we have in battling against assimilation and apathy.

Please continue enjoying the daily Project 613 episodes and invite your friends and family to join the movement by clicking here: chabadelpaso.com/project613

If you missed past episodes, you can find them all in the online archive here: chabadelpaso.com/all613

 

Stop Stressing About Stuff

Rescuers on a rescue boat once threw a ring buoy to a man drowning at sea. “No thanks!” he gasped. “G-d will save me.”

A  helicopter hovering above lowered a rope ladder for the man to climb up, but he waved them away, because he was waiting for G-d. As he was about to go under he pushed away a raft floating by because it did not look like G-d either, and he drowned.

Facing the heavenly court he complained to G-d “Why did you not save me?” G-d replied “I tried saving you, but you rejected my boat, my helicopter and even my raft…”

In this week’s parsha Moshe describes the tremendous miracles G-d routinely did in the desert for 40 years to enable the Jews to survive there. Heavenly food called Manna descended every weekday morning, water flowed from a stone and divine clouds protected them from the harsh elements. Their clothing never tattered, remained in pristine condition and even adjusted to their sizes.

Why was it necessary for them to live such a dream-like reality for so long? Even if it was necessary to delay entering the Promised Land for forty years, G-d could have led them on a route close enough to civilization so they could purchase food, water, clothing and all other basic necessities.

Moshe explains that the last forty years of miracles was G-d’s way of educating us a profound truth about nature and the real world. “So that [G-d] would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of the L-rd does man live.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

G-d redeemed us from Egyptian slavery and gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai so that we should live lives permeated with the knowledge that everything is controlled and determined by the Creator. The routineness of nature makes such an attitude challenging so G-d gave us forty years of miraculous survival so that we should appreciate that nutrition, shelter and comfort comes exclusively from G-d.

The Rebbe once wrote in a postscript to a businessman in England (see below): Don’t worry so much about business. More Bitachon (trust in G-d) - more Parnasa (financial success).

We can’t wait for food to fall from heaven and must responsibly do our part to make a living, but success is in G-d’s hands alone and there is no reason to stress over it. Better invest your energies into nurturing an active and passionate relationship with G-d, through learning more Torah, observing the mitzvot properly, giving charity generously and inspiring others to do the same, and experience the heavenly blessings flow through your natural efforts.

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Follow your childish curiosity

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For months my son Menachem badgered me to visit a Tefillin making shop during our Brooklyn visit this summer. He already observed a Sofer (ritual scribe) writing and checking the scrolls that are inserted into the black Tefillin boxes, but his main curiosity was piqued by how the actual boxes are made. He has a toy pair of Tefillin made of plastic, but he knows the real Tefillin he will use when he becomes Bar Mitzvah is exclusively hand fashioned from an animal’s hide. For a while he’s been wondering how you produce square, durable boxes from a piece of skin.

Before continuing, it’s important to note that the animal hides used to fashion Tefillin come from animals that either died naturally or were slaughtered for beef. Animals are not killed for the express purpose of fashioning Tefillin.

At first I was at a loss of where to find such a shop. While the main avenue of the Crown Heights neighborhood has more than half a dozen scribal shops, I had never seen the inside of a Tefillin boxes crafting shop before. A friend who is a scribe referred me to Mendel who works in his father’s Tefillin shop located in Crown Heights and I soon learned his shop specializes in producing the “Lamborghinis” of Tefillin boxes.

Menachem’s eyes sparkled as he observed the Tefillin crafters laboring at their holy trade and he soaked it all in as Mendel walked him through the tedious and labor intensive steps to crafting the Tefillin boxes. It can take many months for one pair to be ready, and in those thirty minutes we saw all the various stages it entails. 

I’ll admit, the visit was an eye opener for me as well and I started wondering why I never sought out this shop before to quenche my own thirst for knowledge about a mitzvah I do every weekday for many years. I believe the Shema we recite twice daily, which is recorded in this week’s parsha, has the answer to this question.

“And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your children and speak of them when you sit in your house… And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. ”

While one can only teach what they themselves previously learned, the fact that the Torah places “teach them (Torah teachings) to your children” before “speak of them (Torah teachings)” perhaps indicates that the best way to learn yourself is by educating your children. Because their insatiable curiosity to know more will drive you to understand Torah better than ever before. Alternatively, one should channel their own childish curiosity while studying as an adult in order to ensure the best possible results.

There is always more to discover about our Jewish heritage. One need only tune into their childish curiosity to seek answers even to the most seemingly elementary questions.

Got questions? I’d love to try and answer them!

 

 

The Childish Impatience We All Should Have

Although road trips are fun, long drives can take their toll. Even adults get fidgety after some time in the car, but children are notoriously impatient about these things. “When are we there yet?” is a common complaint I hear from my kids all the time, but yesterday my four year old daughter took it to a new level. “I wish we could be home right now!” she pouted and I realized her outburst expressed a profound life lesson we can learn from this week’s parsha.

This week we conclude reading the Book of Numbers with the parsha of Masei which opens with an accounting of the 40-year long Israelite journey in the desert to the Promised Land. It started in Egypt and culminated on the bank of the Jordan River near Jericho with a total of 42 stops along the way.

Torah is very efficient with its words and the fact that 49 verses are dedicated to a detailed accounting of the Israelite itinerary indicates that this information is not only interesting to history buffs, but relevant to us all. Here are some points to consider.

The precise wording of the opening verse of the parsha gives the impression that all 42 journeys are directly related to the exodus from Egypt, which means that all 42 journeys were part of the redemption process that culminated near Jericho. What is the message here?

First, some translation is necessary. The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim” which means boundaries or limitations. Mitzrayim was not just the nation that enslaved our forefathers. It represents the underlying human condition which is the source of all our problems: the internal and external limitations that deny us from realizing our true potential to make our world a divine paradise of peace and tranquility. These limitations are the symptoms of a world devoid of G-d consciousness.

The Hebrew word for Jericho (Yericho) is etymologically linked to the Hebrew word for smell (rei’ach).  Our tradition explains that smelling salts are used to revive someone from a faint because the sense of smell is linked to the essence of the soul. When this essential soul level is revealed, its G-d consciousness transforms everything around it into a divine paradise of peace. The purpose of “leaving Mitzrayim” - breaking out of our egotistical tunnel vision - is in order to “reach Yericho” - achieve the revelation of the ultimate level of G-d consciousness for all humanity.

Our ancestors’ itinerary from Egypt to Jericho is the blueprint of the journey every individual experiences through life and the journey of humanity at large. Every individual life and the arc of history are both journeys destined to culminate in a redemptive state of peace and tranquility achieved through G-d consciousness. Every choice we make as individuals and as a society brings us closer to the ultimate redemption.

But it’s taking too long for it to happen and we ought to have my four-year old daughter’s childish impatience and declare “We wish we could be there already!” Here’s the catch: while she couldn’t do anything about getting home sooner, Maimonides declared we have the power to hasten the era of redemption with one more positive thought, spoken word or action.

 

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