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Rabbis' Blog

Inspirational Torah Messages from Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso

Here’s How to Inspire People to Change

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It's frustrating to see others make wrong choices and even worse when they ignore good critique and advice for the future. Many well intentioned preachers fail to inspire and the question is: why?

This week's parsha opens with G-d notifying Noach that the corrupt society he lived in would be destroyed in an epic flood and that he will father a new world. To save himself, he is instructed to build a box-like boat large enough for his family, a pair of every animal species and provisions to last one year.

Noach got to work without delay. After all, it's not every day G-d provides you detailed building plans and articulates how much is at stake. Yet, despite the urgency, the construction project lasted for 120 years!

Everyone involved in construction knows that rarely is a project finished ahead of schedule. But 120 years seems to be an exaggeration by any stretch. What took so long?

Building the Ark was an instruction given exclusively to Noach. He alone prepared the materials and single handedly constructed the mammoth ship. G-d made it a solo project so that it be prolonged and drawn out in order to attract the attention of humanity. Every day that Noach labored over the strange box people inquired about it and he shared G-d’s message of impending doom - hoping they would change their ways.

The Ark’s century-long construction was the grandest advertisement of G-d’s intentions for the future and the loudest wake up call for humanity to repent. But alas, Noach’s warnings fell on deaf ears, the Great Flood became a reality and all was lost.

Over a thousand years later, Moshe faced a similar scenario. The Israelites had sinned with the Golden Calf and G-d decreed their complete annihilation. Unlike Noach in his time, Moshe effectively inspired the Israelites to repentance and successfully convinced G-d to rescind the terrible decree.

Why did Moshe succeed and Noach fail?

Moshe selflessly cared for the Jewish nation to the point that he boldly declared “If You (G-d) plan to destroy them, it will be over my dead body!” So when he admonished them for sinning it was not in order to fulfill his obligation to G-d but because he truly cared for their physical and spiritual welfare.

Noach, on the other hand, obediently constructed the Ark and warned his generation as an expression of his devotion to G-d, but not because he truly cared about his listeners.

The historical contrast between Noach and Moshe provides a crystal clear perspective on how to effectively inspire people to be better: Truly care for them. Work hard to find the right words and methods to get your message across. And if all else fails, say a genuine prayer on their behalf.

Because no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

 

Playing by the Game Rules

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My daughter received a board game as a gift over the holidays. She excitedly opened the package and immediately started reading the game rules.

“Why don’t you make up your own rules?” I asked her.

She rolled her eyes at me. “It doesn’t work that way, Totty! The game is only fun when you play the way the game makers decided. Otherwise, the board and pieces won’t make any sense!”

I couldn't argue with that.

This week we completed a full cycle of learning Torah and started from the beginning. Reading the opening words of the Torah describing creation an obvious question presents itself. Why must we learn about creation in a book meant to be a guidebook to Jewish life?

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the 12th century sage popularly known as “Rashi,” wrote a commentary on the Torah which has been unanimously accepted as the gold standard of understanding the original Torah text for many centuries.

In his opening entry Rashi goes so far as to suggest that the first thirteen portions of the Torah are seemingly inconsistent with the purpose of the Torah as a Jewish code of law.

Here is how he answers this fundamental question:

For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they (Israel) will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper. When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

Rashi lived in medieval France in the era of the Crusades. There was no Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel at the time and the typical five year old child studying Torah was unlikely to encounter this condemnation throughout his lifetime. So how is this explanation relevant?

Because the premise of the argument over Israel's ownership appears in many formats. Why is one day a week different from the rest? Why is this food permitted to some and forbidden to others?

Starting the narrative at Genesis helps circumvent 99% of the frustrations the Torah student will inevitably have. Why are the rules so invasive? Why are there instructions for every detail of life? Must I really follow standards that make no sense to me?

At the very beginning of G-d’s communication to humanity He presents His credentials and frames the Torah for what it truly is. As the Creator, He is gifting us the opportunity to live according to the standards found in the blueprint of the universe.

Like playing the game by the rules.

When understood properly and presented appropriately, this perspective will resonate not only in our private lives but on the geopolitical stage as well.

Leap Forward. You Can!

 

Once upon a time a king lived in a castle surrounded by a moat filled with alligators. One day he invited the citizens of his kingdom to the castle, promising them a spectacular show.

“Whoever will swim across the moat and reach the other side alive can choose to have either half the royal treasury or my daughter's hand in marriage!”

The offer was quite generous but the stakes could not be higher. Jumping into the moat was certain suicide!

After several tense minutes, there was a loud splash as one man started swimming frantically across the moat. The dumbstruck crowd watched the display of bravery bordering on lunacy and as the daring swimmer reached the other side broke out into thunderous cheers.

“Bravo!” the king cried. “Which prize will you choose? Do you want the money?”

“No!”

“Do you want to marry the princess?”

“No!”

Befuddled the king asked, “So what do you want as a reward?”

“To find out who was the son of a gun that pushed me in!”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allow us to experience a spiritual high and many feel the urge to become better people and more committed Jews. But then comes the day after. Returning to the routine of life we can sometimes reexamine the resolutions we made during our moments of inspiration and start to doubt our ability to live up to them.

What now?

This Shabbat will mark the Yartzeit-Hilulo (anniversary of passing) of the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel, known as the Rebbe Maharash. Life in Czarist Russia in the late 1800s was a terrifying time of state sponsored pogroms against Jewish communities throughout the kingdom.

As the leader of the general Jewish community, the Rebbe spearheaded intensive efforts to revert the terrible decrees. He travelled extensively to meet with government officials and influential oligarchs to bring an end to the bloodshed and destruction.

He is quoted saying “The world believes that when faced with a challenge, if there is no way around it or under it - then you jump over it. I say that you should jump.over it from the onset - (in the original Hebrew-Yiddish) Lechatchila Ariber!”

This was his modus operandi during his lifetime and the eternal legacy he left for us all. No need to speculate on questions of ability and self worth. If you are presented with an opportunity to do good - go right ahead!

This brings perspective to the post High Holiday blues. Unsure if you are able to live up to all your commitments? Jump right in and start swimming. The alligators of failure are all in your head.

No time for second guessing because we have a collective mission to accomplish and success depends on every one of us.

 

Context is Everything

 

An important part of my monthly routine is visiting with fellow Jews serving time at the local federal prison for crimes they committed. During the hour we say some prayers with Tefillin, learn Torah, sing songs and have vibrant discussions.

Since the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Ten Days of Teshuvah the topic of our conversation was “Teshuvah.”

We quickly realized that translating the word “Teshuvah” as repentance causes various complications.

Repentance is defined as “deep sorrow, compunction, or contrition for a past sin, wrongdoing, or the like.” In that case, do perfect people have no connection with the “Ten Days of Teshuvah?” Or perhaps is the calendar implying that everyone is a sinner? Whatever happened to giving the benefit of the doubt?

This is another example of a profoundly empowering Jewish idea getting lost in translation. “Teshuvah” does not mean to repent. Rather the root of the word is “Shav” - return.

Once in conversation I was asked why some Jews are such hypocrites that they will pray in the synagogue three time a day and eat only Kosher, but behave terribly in business!

“What is the hypocrisy?” I prodded.

“If they are such thieves why do they bother praying?”

“Why do you consider their prayer and Kosher diet hypocrisy?” I countered. “Perhaps cheating in business is their hypocrisy?”

At the core, everyone is pure and wants to do the right thing. Circumstances and experiences may cause us to get distracted from staying true to our essence and lead us down a path of bad decisions. Certainly everyone is responsible for his or her actions, but those deficiencies can never define who we are. Our core remains the same.

This definition should not be taken for granted. In fact, when the Baal Shem Tov started teaching that Teshuvah is for everyone, he faced stiff resistance from the religious elite for insinuating that the scholars are guilty of sin. Their misunderstanding was the result of a lack of context for the role of Teshuvah and its power.

The verb of Teshuvah is not limited to sinners. Everyone needs to return to their pristine original selves. To reveal the essential connection with G-d not defined by behavior or claimed beliefs.

Now is the time to reveal that inner connection and find ways to access this purity throughout the  year. The good resolutions you make this week will be the vehicle through which the divine energy available now will be accessible every day of the coming year.

 

Tishrei: Bottoms Up!

Authors know that the right title can propel their books to the top of the bestseller lists or render them unreadable. Seasoned journalists will tell you that constructing the perfect headline can spell the difference between winning a Pulitzer or having another collection of 2000 words floating around on the internet.

This is true about all languages, but the power of words in the Torah context is a world unto its own. Lashon Hakodesh - the Holy Tongue - better known as Biblical Hebrew, is a divine language containing endless layers of meaning. Each word can be dissected in myriads of ways to reveal tremendously profound messages pertinent to our daily lives.

The month playing host to the many holidays on the horizon is called “Tishrei.” Just by analyzing the construct of the word, knowing just the Hebrew Alphabet nursery song, reveals the essential message of all four holidays celebrated within this month.

“Tishrei” is spelled with four letters. “Tav” - the last letter of the alphabet; “Shin” - the second to last; “Reish” - the third to last; and finally “Yud” - which is closer to the beginning of the order.

Now, imagine the Hebrew Alphabet in a vertical line. Spelling the word “Tishrei” would mean starting from the very bottom and consistently moving upwards. (A simple comparison in English would be spelling a word like this: ZYXJ.)

This is the theme of all the holidays we are about to celebrate: the obligation to move consistently upwards.

Our relationship with G-d is a two way street. On Pesach we celebrate G-d’s boundless love for us regardless of our spiritual status; we were redeemed from slavery despite our lack of merit. The direction is from above to below.

But Tishrei is from the bottom up. The holidays therein represent the human effort to reach for the divine.

The shrill cry of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah expresses our preparedness to submit to G-d’s kingship and behave accordingly. The atonement we achieve on Yom Kippur happens through our efforts to reach the core truth of our souls. During Sukkot we actively pursue an all encompassing unity with every Jew and Simchat Torah marks the completion of a yearly cycle of Torah study.

“Tishrei” is about orientation. True renewal can only happen when we reach for the very bottom and elevate it to the greatest heights.

Take Off Your Sunglasses

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The season is changing. Everyone talks about the weather and I’ve heard people complain that they will miss the heat while others look forward to cooler weather.

We tend to change our wardrobe and certain habits with the season and, although El Paso is the “Sun City,” I expect to see less sunglasses around as we get more clouds and wind.

This week, while listening to the Rebbe’s pre Rosh Hashanah address from 1980, I discovered a fascinating correlation between removing sunglasses and Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the sixth day of creation when Adam, the first human being, was created 5,779 years ago. While the beginning of creation (five days earlier) is a worthy milestone to observe, the big deal revolves around Adam. Why?

Creator and Creation are opposites. The Creator is infinite and omnipresent, and Creation is finite and confined. In order for G-d to create our measured and perfect universe as we know it, it was necessary to shield creation from G-d’s brilliant infinity.

Here is an analogy we can easily relate to. The benefits we derive from the sun are obvious. Light and warmth are only the beginning of its impact on our lives. Yet, looking directly at the sun is dangerous and destructive. To get a better look at it we need to wear sunglasses to filter the brilliant sunlight so that our delicate eyeballs remain functional.

The same is true with creation. G-d desired a world where everything has a defined space and time. Only the finite hand of the human body can wear Tefillin and only the wool of a physical sheep can be used for the mitzvah of tzitzit. Therefore, the divine filter called “nature” shields the world from expiring into the infinite divine brilliance.

Here is the catch. Because we are born into this filtered universe and live with it all the time, it is easy to forget the truth behind the filter. It is possible to imagine that worldly matters can be a real impediment to serving G-d. Making a living may not jive with Shabbos observance, daily Torah study or giving Tzedaka generously and keeping Kosher may interfere with the ever important social scene.

Such a mindset is comparable to the guy with shades convincing himself that the sun is not so powerful after all and really has a dark tinge to it. Naive!

This is why Rosh Hashanah is observed on the day Adam was created. On that day, coming to his senses, he immediately perceived the truth and called upon every element of creation to crown G-d as King of the Universe. He saw past the ever present proverbial “sunglasses” and shared his knowledge with the world.

Next week, we, his descendents, are called upon to do the same. As we remove our sunglasses in anticipation for fall, let us commit this coming year to perceiving the truth of reality. Observe an extra Mitzvah, invest more time in Torah study, give more generously to Tzedakah and share the truth with everyone.

 

What I learned from the Military

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All things military can be fascinating. Air Force jets, tanks and battle gear can capture the imagination of kids and adults alike. Battleground heroism and patriotism are the stuff great stories have been made out of for ages.

War is horrible, but it is an inevitable part of reality so long there is fragmentation and competition in our world and the Torah in this week’s parsha sets forth the divine guidelines for a Jewish militia. Whereas these laws are unfortunately relevant in the literal sense, they are also metaphorically relatable to the personal and communal challenges we face on a daily basis.

In fact, when G-d redeemed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery they were referred to as Tzivot Hashem - G-d’s Army. Since the era marked the birth of the Jewish nation, their title reflected the fact that to accomplish their new a mission to the world, a military mindset is vital.

Here are two elements of army life that are necessary for Jewish success.

Obedience: Soldiers are trained to follow orders unquestioningly. This is not a cruel ploy to rob  human beings of their natural right to investigate and understand, rather it is a crucial ingredient to military success.

The foot soldier’s perspective of the battle is extremely limited. Only the commanders who are privy to the finest intelligence and real time updates of the entire front are capable of making the best strategic decisions. During battle there is no time for explanations and the soldier must follow orders first and ask questions much later.

The same is true in Judaism. When G-d offered the Torah to the Jewish people, the magical words of acceptance were “Naaseh Ve’nishma” - “We will observe the commandments (first) and we will understand their meaning (afterwards).” Once you become aware of a Mitzvah that needs to get done, do it! Rest assured that there is inspirational depth and flavor to it all, and with the proper investment of time and effort you will appreciate it all in due time.

Courage: Although soldiers are trained to follow orders, there are times when the realities on the ground call for flexibility, innovation and the courage to make important decisions instantaneously - all while carefully following military protocol and the rules of engagement. The specific tactics of how to accomplish the mission will inevitably change as the battle rages and such flexibility demands much courage.

As Jews, we fight a constant battle against assimilation. It can a personal challenge or a communal one. When unforeseen challenges and opportunities arise we need to have the courage and flexibility to adapt accordingly with speed - all while carefully following the protocol and rules of engagement as they are spelled out in the Shulchan Aruch - the Code of Jewish Law.

We’ve all been drafted 3,330 years ago. Let’s give this fight all we’ve got.

 

Are You in Control?

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Taking his seat in his chambers, the judge faced the opposing lawyers. "So," he said, "I have been presented, by both of you, with a bribe." Both lawyers squirmed uncomfortably. "You, attorney John, gave me $15,000. And you, attorney Campos, gave me $10,000."

The judge reached into his pocket and pulled out a check. He handed it to John. "Now then, I'm returning $5,000, and we're going to decide this case solely on its merits."

This week's parshah delineates the Jewish judicial process. It is a mitzvah to appoint judges to determine the law and police to enforce the law in every Jewish city and province. These guardians of the law are held to the highest moral standards and the integrity of the entire system depends on the personal honesty of each individual appointee.

Aside for ensuring that the judge be of the highest caliber, the Torah minces no words to clearly spell out every detail of the courtroom process to ensure it is done in a way that is transparently fair and just.

"You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words" (Deuteronomy 16:19). Each one of these instructions addresses another area that may be left to interpretation and manipulation. The Torah leaves no loopholes for corruption.

While the obligation to set up courts of justice is a communal one, there is a pertinent lesson to be learned from this mitzvah in our personal lives. The Torah writes "You shall place judges and police at all your gates." This literally refers to the gates of cities but can metaphorically be applied to the gates of our bodies.

Our eyes, ears and mouth are the “gates” through which outside influences enter our minds, hearts and bodies. A Jew must monitor what goes through these gates. Before looking at something, listening to something or eating something we need to judge the merits and demerits of the issue in question. And even after determining that something is inappropriate through the metaphorical "judge," we must have the moral strength to enforce this decision through the metaphorical "police."

Our inner "judge" is nurtured through constant Torah study and our "police" is nurtured through proper meditation and application of Torah's lessons.

Vigilance is paramount to leading a healthy and balanced Jewish life.

Not Just a Camp

 

A few hours ago we concluded two spirited weeks of Camp Gan Israel 2018. Close to 50 children had a unforgettable summer experience. Thanks to our incredible group of staff from Brooklyn and El Paso, we were able to deliver high powered Judaism in such a fashion that the kids loved every minute of it.

I am often asked why most Chabad camps throughout the world have the same name, and why specifically that name. Although it is certainly good marketing practices to have a unified brand, every Chabad camp operates independently, but is so similar for the same reason - the name.

In 1956, the Lubavitcher Rebbe established the first Chabad overnight camp in the Catskills in upstate New York. The name given was “Gan Yisrael” which literally means “the Garden of Israel.” The name Yisrael is a tribute to the founder of the Chassidic movement Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov.

The Rebbe explained that the children in the camp will be educated in the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov. And just as saplings growing in a garden benefit from every small enhancement of their treatment, the campers in Camp Gan Israel will blossom and grow as a result of the few short weeks they are educated in the Baal Shem Tov’s ways.

The single overnight camp morphed into a giant network of overnight and day camps all over the world that provide an awesome summer experience to hundreds of thousands of campers each year. And most importantly, enable them to benefit from the refreshing Jewish energy pulsing through every part of the daily schedule.

The essence of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings can be found in this week’s parsha. Moshe declares to the Israelites, “You are the children of G-d” (Deuteronomy 14:1). Those four words (in the original Hebrew) found their greatest expression and meaning when the Baal Shem Tov started to reveal the true essence of a Jew. A child does not lose his or her birth rite due to circumstances or bad choices. Regardless of how far away a child may run, Mom and Dad yearn for their return and love them throughout.

He would travel to Jewish communities far and wide, reach out to the simple and forgotten Jews to encourage and inspire them to serve G-d in the best way they could. He revealed the academic and emotional framework through which we are capable of viewing every Jew for the pure essence of their soul.

It is this spirit that animates every Camp Gan Israel in the world and it is this passion that fueled the last two weeks of Jewish pride and power here in El Paso. It is our greatest blessing to see the campers take what they have learned, share it with others and live up to these ideals throughout the year.

Thank you to our supporters, friends and volunteers for making this year’s camp a reality and we look forward to feeling the camp spirit throughout the year.

 

Relationship Status: Nuanced

Relationships are an art and no two are the same. The nuanced relationship between G-d and the Jewish People is on full display in this week’s parsha.

It opens with Moshe sharing the fact that he prayed incessantly to be allowed to enter the Promised Land until he was told that by doing so he would forsake the generation of Israelites he had led out of Egypt forty years earlier. While this anecdote emphasizes Moshe’s devotion as a leader, it is a stark reminder of the tragic sin that prolonged their dessert journey for forty years and caused the premature death of an entire generation.

The parsha continues to describe the terrible tragedies of exile that would befall the Jewish people in the future as a result of forsaking G-d’s covenant. These verses are so poignant that they are the Torah reading for Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of both Holy Temples.

But the parsha also plays host to the story of Matan Torah, the revelation at Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. Moshe retells the many details of that momentous event, when G-d gifted us His precious Torah with unbridled love and trust. In addition, we read the famous paragraph of Shema Yisrael - the essential declaration of our faith in G-d.

In one reading, we encounter the highest and lowest moments.

It is a juxtaposition that forces us to discover the essential bond between G-d and the Jewish People that transcends all circumstances.

This past Sunday, during the fast of Tisha B’Av, someone shared with me recording of a talk the Rebbe gave 34 years ago. Quoting from an important Jewish text, the Rebbe elaborated on the fact that when the Holy Temple started to burn on the afternoon of the 9th of Av in 70CE, the Jews witnessing the destruction started to rejoice! How does this make any sense?

When the Romans entered Jerusalem and started massacring the multitudes of Jews, the Jews feared that their total annihilation would happen right then and there. But when they saw the Holy Temple burning, they realized that G-d was venting his fury only on the structural symbol of Judaism and not on Judaism itself. Although the greatest Jewish tragedy was unfolding in front of their eyes, it was from that point on that they knew that Am Yisrael Chai! - Judaism will endure forever!

Because despite the fact that our actions caused divine retribution and we became unworthy of having consistent and clear divine revelation in the structure of the Holy Temple, our relationship with G-d is not limited to our behavior. It weathers the storms of sin and destruction and will one day shine brightly forever with the coming of Moshiach.

We must not sit back and wait for this to happen. The process of revealing this essential bond depends on our active participation. By increasing out Torah study, Mitzvah observance and ensuring our fellow Jews do the same, we expedite the redemption - for real.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Levi Greenberg

Demolition

 

The sight of a wreaking-ball swinging into action or dynamite exploding in a building evokes mixed emotions. The gaping emptiness that immediately follows evokes nostalgia for what was lost and onlookers perceive only destruction and ruin.

But a controlled demolition is typically a cause for celebration. The owner intends to replace the old edifice with something far superior. The current carnage provides the platform for future growth.

This Shabbat occurs on Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of Av) – the Jewish national day of mourning. Every major Jewish tragedy can be traced back to this ominous date. Both Holy Temples were destroyed on this day in 423 BCE and 69 CE respectively, and this serves as the most significant symbol of Jewish tragedy.

When Tisha B’Av occurs on a weekday, in addition to being observed as a 25 hour fast, we abstain from all physical pleasures and spend considerable time bemoaning what was lost and the tragic realities of exile. But since fasting and mourning is prohibited on Shabbat, this Shabbat will be celebrated like all others, notwithstanding the fact that it is such a profoundly sad day, and the fast will be observed a day later.

This schedule is not random. When the sages established the Jewish calendar they ensured that specific dates never occur on certain days of the week to preserve their significant observance. Would it not be appropriate to engineer the calendar in a way that Tisha B’Av should never occur on Shabbat so that it may be observed properly?

Tradition relates that in every generation there is one person who can be Moshiach, and as the Holy Temple burned in Jerusalem, the potential redeemer was born. For this reason we do not recite confessional prayers on Tisha B’Av, and we recite the inspirational prayer of Nacheim which concludes with praising G-d as the “Consoler of Zion and Builder of Jerusalem.”

So Tisha B’Av contains these two seemingly contrasting themes of exile and redemption: The destruction of the Temple (exile) and the birthday of Moshiach (redemption). Whereas on a regular Tisha B’Av the intense mourning and fasting takes center stage and one needs to pay close attention to discover the observance of Moshiach’s birthday – this year is different. Although the commemoration of the destruction is postponed until Sunday, commemorating Moshiach’s birthday remains on schedule and becomes the overarching theme and celebration of this Shabbat.

As in the analogy of the wreaking-ball, an informed observer understands that it paves the way for previously unachievable growth; we must always remember that the destruction of Tisha B’Av paves the way for Moshiach’s arrival.

Tisha B’Av on Shabbat provides us the opportunity to focus less on the tragic past and more on the brightest future. Just as our negative behavior caused the destruction of the Holy Temple and this 2,000 year long exile; it is our choices and behavior that will reverse it all.

Consider adding more minutes of Torah study to your schedule, doing an extra Mitzvah and giving more charity, because these are the things that will expedite Moshiach’s imminent arrival, ushering in an era of global peace and tranquility for all.

Sharing Our Tactics

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Some friends of mine facilitated a cool podcast this week about the Mitzvah Tank experience. Starting in the mid-seventies, many large metropolitan areas have been graced with the scene of RVs converted into makeshift synagogues or Jewish libraries parked at major pedestrian thoroughfares.

Chabad rabbinical students man these mobiles, asking passersby if they are Jewish and offer the men to wrap Tefillin and gift women candles to light before Shabbat evening. The moniker “Mitzvah Tank” evolved early on in tribute to the ability for these roving Chabad installations to bring Jewish observance to frontiers previously unimaginable – similar to the role of standard tanks in battle.

Three Jews with diverse experiences on the receiving end of the “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” question, rode along on a Mitzvah Tank to see what makes these inspired young men tick.

They schmooze about Jewish identity, pride and culture, but mainly seek to understand the psychology behind approaching strangers and popping Mitzvahs. Dovid, Motti and Mordechai spell it all out very clearly and I encourage you to hear what they have to say here.

But I’d like to share with you a lesson from this week’s parsha that illuminates an important aspect of what has become a basic staple of Jewish life today.

We learn of the Mitzvah of Nedarim – Oaths. Here is how it works. If one feels it necessary to refrain from all gluten, for example, a firm resolution is often sorely insufficient to keeping this impulse in check. So Judaism provides the nuclear option of making an oath. When an individual makes a proper oath not to eat gluten, it assumes the status of a holy sacrifice for this individual alone. This makes his or her donut munching far more devastating than unhealthy or impulsive behavior. It now becomes sacrilegious!

To be clear, this provision applies only to foods and behaviors permitted in Jewish law. In the event that these kosher things can be physically or spiritually detrimental, the power of the “Neder – Oath” may be invoked.

From a philosophical perspective, a fascinating irony emerges: A powerful way to neutralize the negative effects of something is by making it holy!

How does this all connect to the boys on the Mitzvah Tanks?

Unfortunately, there are many Jews lacking the opportunity to observe many Mitzvot for a host of reasons. So they spend their free time from studies seeking out these Jews to make them aware of how important they are to G-d and how precious their one Mitzvah is to Judaism at large. They are neutralizing the negativity of religious apathy though emphasizing the crucial value of each and every Jew.

Is this a Chabad tactic? No. It is simply the truth.

Winning With the Lottery

A few weeks ago my children asked me to choose a number from one to ten. Sizing up the situation, I realized they both wanted to play with a certain toy and decided that the best way to resolve the standoff was to make a raffle. Whoever chose the number I had in mind got the toy.

I’m not sure where they learned this brilliant solution and I was relieved the loser accepted the results without complaint. Conventional negotiations would have sapped all my energy and everyone would have been miserable. Something about a raffle helps all ages appreciate even the most absurd outcome – just because.

In this week’s parsha we learn of G-d’s instructions to the Israelites how to divide the Land of Israel.

“A tribe with a larger population will receive a larger portion and a tribe with fewer members will receive a smaller portion.”

Sounds fair.

Then the Torah continues, “The Land should be allocated according to the “Goral” – the raffle.”

The Talmud explains that Moshe gathered representatives from the tribes and apportioned the regions based on the diverse topography of the land and the results of the most recent census. Once it was all figured out, a formal lottery was conducted. Cubes inscribed with the tribes’ names were in one box and cubes inscribed with the regions in another.

The representatives were honored to pick out a cube from each box and miraculously the two cubes randomly chosen matched perfectly! They each picked out their tribe and the region they had already negotiated.

What was the purpose of this miraculous formality and, most importantly, how is this relevant to us today?

Our connection to Eretz Yisrael is deeper than a national homeland. It is the “Holy Land” because it embodies the perfection of Mitzvah observance as prescribed in the Torah. In a broader sense it represents the entirety of our collective mission in life; to imbue every aspect of reality with divine purpose and inspiration.

Everyone is given a mission based on their talents, strengths and circumstances. But when faced with certain challenges, regular negotiations stop working and that’s where the lottery comes in.

This region is mine just because; this mitzvah will happen just because.

I recently saw a clip of Anthony Bourdain’s visit to the Kotel for CNN’s “Parts Unknown”. He admits that he was never in a synagogue and is not a believer. “But that doesn’t make me any less Jewish… Apparently the guys at the Wall don’t think so either.” He was approached by a Chabad Chossid and offered to wrap Tefillin for the first time in his life.

“I am instinctively hostile to devotion… but when they grabbed hold of me and, in such a non-judgmental way [projected that] G-d’s happy to have you – hear you go… man, my treachery is complete.”

The Chossid did not negotiate with Bourdain, he tapped into his Jewishness by lottery – just because.

The Bright Side of Darkness

Life is a mixed bag of experiences. Some more memorable than others, some more pleasant than others and we often struggle to understand the purpose and value of our negative experiences.

This week’s parsha is a study in contrasts that provides us with a straightforward perspective on understanding reality.

We learn about the paranoid Moabite King Balak who hired the vile prophet Bilaam to curse them to extinction. Historically, Bilaam’s words were fatal and had destroyed powerful nations before. The Jews were completely unaware of the dramatic saga of how G-d foiled this fiendish scheme and it was brought to their attention only through Torah’s prophetic record.

Throughout the forty years since the exodus from Egypt, this was a moment when we were truly vulnerable and G-d’s limitless love for us saved us from certain catastrophe.

It all turned out for the best. Bilaam ultimately delivered beautiful blessings to the Jews, rounding them off with the clearest prophecy of Israel’s future stratospheric rise and the arrival of Moshiach ever recorded in the Torah.

In an ironic twist, Bilaam became the harbinger of our redemption and Balak became an active participant in the process of Moshiach’s arrival. His grand-daughter Ruth later converted to Judaism, becoming the matriarch of the Davidic lineage of which Moshiach will be a descendant.

To be clear, evil must be condemned and destroyed and Balak and Bilaam are forever linked in infamy. But the story of the unexpected positive results of their hatred allows us to appreciate that sorrow can lead to joy and defeat can be the catalyst of victory.

Shabbat will be the seventeenth day of the month of Tammuz. It is the anniversary of the tragic events of the Golden Calf and later the day our enemies breached the walls of Jerusalem resulting in the destruction of the Holy Temple. On any other day of the week it is observed as a fast day, but this year Shabbat postpones the fast to Sunday.

The fact that this Shabbat must be observed as a day of celebration and pleasure - notwithstanding the deep sorrow the day’s tragic events certainly evoke - poignantly illustrates how all negativity will be transformed and elevated in the era of Moshiach

Pain is real and we hope and pray to always experience only revealed good. There is no need to justify tragedy or to be numb to suffering. But we must never become despondent in the face of sorrow. Darkness will one day shine brightly and we can do our part today by seizing the opportunities to bring more light into our own lives and to the world around us.

Balancing Publicity and Anonymity

 

Good people do good things and it’s great when others know about it, because credit can be given where credit is due and others may be inspired to do more good as well.

However, Judaism teaches the value of goodness done without fanfare. Heroic acts of kindness done under the radar unnoticed by the greater public.

In this week’s parsha we learn about Moshe’s older sister Miriam and her legacy.

Throughout the forty years the Israelites journeyed in the desert G-d provided them with food from heaven, water from a rock and divine clouds to protect them from the elements. As they approached the borders of the Promised Land, Miriam passed away and suddenly the miraculous well of fresh water that flowed from the rock for 39 years dried up.

The distraught nation of several million strong found themselves in a desert without water, facing certain death. G-d instructed Moshe how to cause the miraculous well to resume flowing, but the brief halt revealed an astonishing fact about Israel’s survival for so many years in the parched desert: The miraculous well of life giving water was all in the merit of Miriam.

For thirty nine years, Miriam’s righteousness evoked G-d’s mercy for the Jewish people to provide them with much needed water for hydration and ritual purity. Nevertheless, during her lifetime this was unknown and unacknowledged. Only after her passing did the Israelites name this miraculous source of life “Miriam’s Well” which remains a cornerstone of her eternal legacy.

On the other hand, Miriam was accorded one of the most public honors bestowed on a mortal in the merit of one of her earliest achievements. In an earlier episode, Miriam mistakenly criticized Moshe’s behavior, in a private conversation with her brother Aharon. G-d punished her for this infraction with Tzaraat and she was forced to spend seven days outside of the Israelite Camp.

Despite the fact that her week-long banishment was a divine punishment, G-d halted the journey to Israel until she returned to her rightful spot in the camp. This was in tribute to the fact that when Moshe was three months old and his parents, fearing Pharaohs genocidal decree, were forced to abandon him on the Nile River, Miriam risked her life, waiting at the riverside for many hours to watch out for her baby brother. In kind, the Divine Presence and millions of people respectfully waited for her in her time of need.

Miriam’s story teaches us that we must strike a balance between these two extremes. Publicity is crucial to inspire others to follow suit, but it must never be the motivating factor of the good we do. Anonymity is necessary and nurtures personal humility, but erasing yourself from the public list of do-gooders is detrimental for the greater good.

When is doubt, keep this rule in mind: Publicity that will cause more good to happen is certainly appropriate - and then find something greater to do anonymously.

 

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