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Rabbis' Blog

Inspirational Torah Messages from Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso

The Dispute that produced a Brilliant Name

Ever felt like a prophet? According to Jewish mysticism, a person’s name is their personal channel for divine energy, so when parents name their child they are having a mini prophecy. Although it is certainly a spiritual experience, not every naming goes over smoothly.

Hundreds of years ago a couple was blessed with a son and the parents were at odds about what to name him. The father wished to name his son for his father “Uri” and the mother wanted to name him for her father “Meir.” Apparently giving two names was not common practice then and finding themselves at an impasse they approached the local rabbi who recommended an ingenious solution.

The name “Uri” means “my light” and the name “Meir” means “to illuminate.” Since both names mean light, he suggested they name their newborn son “Shnei Ohr - Two Lights.” Thus the name Schneur came to be.

321 years ago, on the 18th day of Elul, the Baal Shem Tov hosted a joyous meal in honor of his 47th birthday. Although he was accustomed to celebrating his birthday every year, the devoted disciples perceived something extraordinary about that year’s celebration.

The Baal Shem Tov said then that a child was born who will ultimately illuminate the entire world with the brilliance of the revealed Torah (scripture, talmud and Jewish law) and the esoteric Torah (Jewish philosophy and mysticism). This child was the famed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, known as the Alter Rebbe.

The name Schneur - which means “two lights” - expresses the Alter Rebbe’s eternal legacy. He authored a Shulchan Aruch - Code of Jewish Law - bringing pristine clarity to all areas of Jewish law and talmudic exegesis as well as his groundbreaking seminal work of Tanya which brilliantly articulates the deepest secrets of the Torah so that everyone with a mind can understand and apply them.

The difference between these two lights of the Torah can be understood from the original dispute over the names Uri and Meir that produced the name Schneur. 

“Uri” connotes the idea that the light remains separate from others. The revealed Torah - scripture, talmud and Jewish law - provides light and clarity for us in life, but it is possible to remain separate from it. A Jew can view Torah an enhancement and guide for life, but life and Torah remain mutually exclusive.

“Meir” connotes the idea that the light shine brightly for others to the point that we can own it as well. The esoteric element of Torah -  Jewish philosophy, mysticism and Chassidus - allows us to appreciate how we are part of G-d’s masterplan for creation and we can and must be entirely invested in Torah, since it is our very life.

The Alter Rebbe’s life work brings both elements of Torah together. Every level of Torah can studied genuinely and passionately until you own it and always make sure to share it with others.

As we celebrate the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe on the 18th of Elul (this Wednesday) I invite you to learn more chassidus and brighten up our world in ways you may have never deemed possible.

Become a Kohen Often

A man approached the rabbi with a deal. “I'll give you $10,000 and you make me a Kohen.”

The rabbi rejected. “I’m sorry, sir. But I do not have the power to do so.”

“I'll give you $25,000… $50,000… rabbi, please! The price is not important. I must become a Kohen!”

“Why are you so desperate to be a Kohen?”

“My father was a Kohen and his father was a Kohen...”

It’s a funny joke because we all know that being a Kohen is not a promotion one can achieve through paying any money in the world or by being the most pious Jew of all time. It is a matter of fate. If your father was a Kohen then you are a Kohen.

There are three classes in Judaism, and they all depend on family. When the Jewish people became a nation at Mt. Sinai they consisted of twelve tribes and the tribe of Levi was selected to be the representatives in all matters of religious ceremonial life to serve as teachers and mentors for their brethren.

Aaron, Moshe’s brother, a member of the Levite tribe was selected to be the first Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and his descendants were ordained Kohanim (priests) to perform the various services in the Holy Temple.

While the rest of the tribes, collectively known as Israelites, received portions in the Promised Land of Israel, with every member receiving personal property for farming, the Levites and Kohanim were not included in this inheritance. They were given 48 cities to live in, but no farmland to feed themselves. They were sustained divinely ordered compulsory taxes paid by every Jew to the Levites and Kohanim on a regular basis.

The Torah in this week’s parsha clarifies why they were excluded from the inheritance. “The entire tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel… the L-rd is his inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 18:1,2)

Instead of losing out they were granted the golden opportunity to devote themselves entirely to G-d’s service without a worry in the world. Never distracted by the need to work the fields or keep track of the harvest times and the rain seasons. Their needs were provided for by divine command and they were always prepared to serve.

So aside for their religious duties, the Levites were unique among the people by dint of their G-d given gift to be dedicated to divine service all the time. Seemingly this gift is determined by fate.

Maimonides maintains it is not so. “Not only the tribe of Levi, but anyone whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before G-d to serve Him and minister to Him and to know G-d… he is sanctified as holy of holies. G-d will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites.”

Everyone can be a Kohen. Not to observe the religious duties Kohanim are obligated in, but to be selflessly dedicated to G-d is a level we should all try to reach. And if you can’t do it 24/7 then five minutes a day is also valuable. Set aside time every day to be a Kohen. Unplug from the world and learn some Torah without distraction.

The more you try it, the more you’ll like it and the more you’ll do it.

 

 

 

 

How Our Mood Changed Two Hundred Years Ago

 

Historically, these next four weeks were a tense and frightening time in Jewish tradition.

Gearing up for Rosh Hashanah - the day of judgement - the Jewish calendar features the month called Elul, designated as the time for self introspection and correction. We still have a chance to wipe the slate clean by identifying our faults and repenting for past improprieties. Sounds frightening and intense.

A little over two centuries ago the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad radically changed our perception of Elul and transformed it into a time of passionate joy. Here is what he explained.

Jewish mysticism teaches that Shabbat is different than the rest of the week because there is a great revelation of divine clarity in our world from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Therefore, we must unplug from our mundane reality and focus on our relationship with G-d in a formal way. We are prohibited from certain labors and spend the day steeped in spirituality.

The same is true about the festivals and since Yom Kippur is the apex of divine revelation in our world, it is considered the most solemn of days when we must disconnect even from our most basic physical needs throughout the day.

These same sources of Jewish mysticism teach that the divine energy manifest in the world on Yom Kippur is also present throughout the entire month of Elul. This begs the obvious question - why do we not behave as we do on Yom Kippur throughout the entire month of Elul?

Kings and Queens are mostly a relic of the past, but to this day much of humanity is fascinated by royalty and royal life, so let’s employ the analogy of a king and his subjects.

When the king is in his palace he is virtually unapproachable. Even the select few granted an audience must follow royal protocols and dress codes, have limited time and the experience is largely choreographed. Even if their wishes are granted with much pomp and ceremony the encounter is highly formal, certainly memorable but rarely pleasurable.

At times the king wishes to fraternize with his subjects in the fields. He wears plainclothes, available to all and, most importantly, he is in a splendid and happy mood, putting everyone at ease. Although extremely informal, he is still the king and grants his subjects all of their wishes, sans the pomp and ceremony.

With this in mind, the Alter Rebbe explains that on Yom Kippur G-d is in “the palace.” We are expected to follow a strict protocol and meet G-d in the synagogue in a state of detachment from materialism.

But during Elul G-d is in “the fields.” Accessible by everyone, even while steeped in materialism and the humdrum of daily life. All we need to do is make the effort to approach G-d by learning more Torah and observing another mitzvah, and He will surely grant us a good and sweet new year. There is still intense work to be done, but it’s no longer foreign and formal.

Sounds like a happy time to me.

The Many Colors of Devotion

 

I had seen photos of it and heard the story of devotion, sacrifice and bravery behind it, but had never seen it.

Last month I visited the exhibition of the Lubavitch Library in Brooklyn, home to hundreds of thousands of rare books, manuscripts and artifacts belonging to the glorious dynasties of Chassidic Rebbes dating back to the Baal Shem Tov.

The display that caught my attention most was a book of Zohar that had belonged to the Rebbe’s father, Rav Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, the legendary chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. This is no ordinary Zohar, since the margins of its pages are filled with his novel interpretations and explanations of the ancient text, in tiny handwriting of red, blue, green and black.

Rav Levi Yitzchok served as the spiritual leader of Russian Jewry long after all other rabbis had either been exiled or murdered by the Communist regime. After the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was banished from the Soviet Union in 1927, Rav Levi Yitzchok was the only remaining rabbi of stature to openly fight against the Communist anti-Jewish oppression, ensuring that Jewish observance and education continue to thrive behind the Iron Curtain.

Days before Pesach 1939 he was arrested on false accusations of high treason and sentenced to five years in the remote region of Chi’ili, Kazakhstan - far removed from any semblance of Jewish life or community. For a scholar and leader of his caliber, the isolation from fellow Jews was certainly the most acute and painful aspect of the harrowing experience.

His wife, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson voluntarily joined him and the most important things she brought from home were several Torah books for him to study. Seeing his delight and pleasure with these treasures she understood that he wished to write down the many novel ideas he developed while studying as he was accustomed to doing back home.

She learned to produce ink from wild berries and Rav Levi Yitzchok diligently wrote until the margins of all the books were filled with his brilliance - in short hand and in multiple colors - published decades later in a five-volume set as his eternal legacy.

He never returned home from exile and a few months after his release, Rav Levi Yitzchok passed away in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan on the 20th day of Av and was buried in a tiny Jewish section of a large cemetery - emblematic of the ultimate spiritual and physical sacrifice he endured for Judaism.

When I saw the pages of the Zohar filled with his colorful writing on display at the exhibition, it dawned on me how this illustrates the ultimate Jewish strength. Even while enduring unbearable suffering and pain, one can continue to be a shining light of devotion, wisdom and leadership for generations to come.

This Wednesday will be the 75th Yahrzeit of Rav Levi Yitzchok. I encourage you to learn more about him, his teachings and his legacy and to be inspired by his message of unwavering faith and devotion under all circumstances.

A Stranger Helped Me Today

 

My car broke down next to the Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall earlier today because it was out of fuel. I hopped out of the car and approached a perfect stranger walking away from the memorial and asked him if he could give me a lift to the nearest gas station. He gladly agreed.

Andrew is a journalist from out of town writing a story on how educators will speak to their students about the unspeakable tragedy from last Shabbat, as school begins on Monday.

We swapped a few thoughts on the matter and I commented to him that the killer travelled all the way across Texas just to kill people because he was motivated by senseless hatred. We need to respond by doing acts of senseless love and compassion, and this short ride to the gas station for a perfect stranger was a great example of that.

It’s the perfect tradeoff - blunt hate with love. Destroy senseless hate with senseless love.

This Shabbat is Tisha B’Av - the national Jewish day of tragedy and mourning, typically observed through a 25 hour fast, but this year is different. Since the ninth day of Av occurs on Shabbat, and Shabbat is a day of pleasure and rejoicing, the sadness and pain of the observance will be delayed to Saturday night and Sunday.

Although the commemoration of the destruction of both our Holy Temples and other tragedies is delayed - the positive elements and messages of Tisha B’Av are magnified specifically when it occurs on Shabbat.

According to tradition the second Holy Temple was destroyed as a result of rampant hatred and the political bickering that rocked the Jewish nation at the time. People despised others for no explainable reason. Although Torah scholarship flourished at the time and there was no issue with idolatry and the like, the atmosphere was so toxic and tensions ran so high that G-d deemed it unworthy for the Holy Temple to remain in our midst.

That’s why Titus and the Roman legions were successful in capturing Jerusalem, destroying our Holy Temple and banishing us into exile.

But G-d promised we will return as soon as we fix the problems, and the way to correct senseless hatred is by engaging in senseless love.

As we observe Tisha B’Av and especially in light of El Paso’s shocking tragedy this week, let us focus our energies in reaching out to others, offering a helping hand and a kind word. Increase in Tzedakah giving, especially in the frequency of your giving. Set aside a Tzedakah box at home and at the office and make charity a permanent and consistent aspect of life.

May our combined efforts usher in the era we are all so desperately waiting for, when peace and tranquility will fill the world with the coming of Moshiach, even before we observe the fast this Sunday.

Being Free

 

Often we get frustrated when presented with new challenges. 

“What did I do wrong? Why do I deserve this problem?”

Instead of investing all our energy in finding a solution to the problem, it is often more tempting to engage in self pity and rage at the fact that the day is not going as initially planned.

The second parsha we will read this week, Parshat Masei, opens with a complete itinerary of the forty-year Israelite journey through the desert, from Egypt to the outskirts of the Promised Land.

“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel as they departed from Egypt.” (Numbers 33:1)

On Passover the Israelites did not embark on a direct flight to Israel. There were many stops and delays on the way until they finally made it to Israel.

Why then does the Torah preface the itinerary by referring to all the journeys as departures from Egypt? Since they departed from Egypt only once it would have been more accurate to call them “journeys to the Land of Israel.”

The Hebrew name for Egypt is “Mitzrayim” and appreciating the root meaing of this word provides the answer to our question.

“Mitzrayim” means boundaries and limitations. On Passover we did not only leave a geographical location called “Mitzrayim,” we were empowered to break through any type of limitation we may ever encounter in our lives. Our ancestors did not reach the Promised Land on the first trip to teach us that life is a constant reality of breaking through limitations. Every juncture in life presents an opportunity to prove our freedom and every day we are presented with new challenges to overcome, to act upon our freedom once again.

Although the goal was to reach the Promised Land - a reality where divinity was apparent and revealed in its full glory - the real story to tell was how we got there. Because every journey was another Exodus.

During the terrifying years of Communist persecution the Previous Rebbe once said: “Fellow Jews! Take advantage of the opportunity to sacrifice for Judaism. One day you will be free to practice Judaism without trouble and you will pine for the days when Judaism came with a price.”

We must not place ourselves in challenging situations, but when the challenge presents itself, realize its potential to make you truly free.

 

 

We're Pouring Concrete!

 Concrete (2).jpeg

It’s been some months since the bulldozers arrived at the construction site of the future Chabad Lubavitch Center for Jewish Life and today we reached the milestone of welcoming the cement trucks. Early this morning our dedicated construction team starting pouring cement for the concrete footings of the sanctuary, social hall and kitchen walls.

How appropriate that the foundation of our future Chabad House is completed this week, since the parsha of Pinchas contains a special lesson reflected in the now drying cement.

A question was once posed in the Study Hall of the Mishnaic sages: What is the most important verse in the entire Torah?

As could be expected, “Shema Yisrael” the foundation of Jewish faith was proposed as well as “Ve’ahavta Lereiacha Kamocha - Love your fellow as yourself” was an obvious candidate.

But then Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi proclaimed that the most important verse in the Torah is the one which communicates our obligation to offer two communal sacrifices every day in the Holy Temple, known in Hebrew as the Korban Tamid. “The first sheep shall be offered in the morning and the second sheep shall be offered in the evening.” (Numbers 28:4)

The assembled scholars and students were so taken by this proposition that they unanimously agreed the seemingly simple verse about the daily sacrifices surpasses the foundation of our faith and the cardinal rule of Jewish living in prominence.

Why?

There is only one mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew to fulfill every single day: The two daily sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple. Obviously this mitzvah is only practical at a time when there is a Holy Temple in Jerusalem and every Jew observed the mitzvah by proxy, through donating a half shekel every year to the Temple coffers. 

No other Mitzvah must happen every day; rain or shine, weekday, Shabbat and Holiday. It is the epitome of Jewish consistency - and that’s what Judaism depends on. Not every day does one succeed in fully relating with the deep philosophical meditation of “Shema Yisrael” nor manage to properly act upon the all encompassing brotherly love it leads to. But when Jewish action happens consistently, regardless of personal mood or current social trends, it provides the concrete foundation we need to keep Judaism alive forever.

A Chabad House is a place for every Jew, every day and every occasion. How apropos that its foundations were laid during the week that we learn of the most important verse in the Torah extolling consistency.

Please partner with us in building the future of Jewish life in El Paso and let’s commit ourselves to doing another mitzvah more consistently, cementing Judaism into every day of our lives.

Those Pathetic Anti-Semites

 

Have you ever followed a discussion between two antisemites? Or a Twitter thread filled with Jew hating dribble? If it weren't so dangerous it would be funny.

Those clowns engage in foolish banter, entertain ridiculous conspiracy theories and drone on and on about sheer lunacy.

But this phenomenon isn’t new. This week's parsha is dedicated to the adventures of two paranoid anti semites who tried to wipe out the entire Jewish nation three thousand years ago.

Here are their profiles.

Balak, the cowardly king of Moav hated the Jews with a blind passion. Even though the Israelites were expressly forbidden from occupying his land, their mere presence in the region drove him crazy.

Bilaam, the gentile prophet was a money hungry, egotistical hedonist. Notwithstanding his divine powers, he was unable to make the case for morality and justice within his circle of influence and resorted to being a divine mercenary for kings and warriors. For the right price he would curse your enemies - and his results were impressive every time. His antisemitism suited him quite well.

Balak knew that facing the Jews in battle was suicidal so he hired Bilaam to do the dirty work. He was delighted with the offer, but was keenly aware that cursing the Chosen Nation was futile. But he tried anyway - because he was an antisemite.

If Bilaam's power of the word were not so potent, the story would read like a comedy. Bilaam gets owned by his donkey, and the pair try the same stupidity thrice. But Bilaam was really dangerous and only G-d's specific intervention averted the worst.

Not only did Bilaam end up blessing the Jewish nation, he became the first to clearly articulate the coming of Moshiach in the future. The advent of an era when no nation will lift a sword against another nation, peace and tranquility will reign for all and G-dliness will be revealed throughout the world.

There is an important lesson here about the craziness we encounter ever increasingly in the world today. People are engaging in the most vile and illogical ideas, sometimes with tragic results. It makes you wonder where our world is headed.

But specifically from the most unbelievable darkness springs forth the greatest light. By responding to illogical hatred with illogical love, we access unlimited wellsprings of goodness.

I am not suggesting we ignore the hatred around us, but we must not let it drag us down. It is a sign of great goodness to come and we can prepare for it by doing more mitzvot and creating more goodness and kindness around us.

 

That's the Way It Is

 

It was during the High Holiday season of 2005 when I had a lengthy conversation with my grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, of blessed memory.

Since we lived thousands of miles apart and as a youngster I was not proficient in neither Hebrew or Yiddish, there was a significant communication barrier between us. But that afternoon in Brooklyn, when I was nineteen years old I asked him questions about the past. 

At age nineteen, orphaned from both parents, he was sentenced to twenty five years of harsh labor in Siberia for the treasonous crime of escaping the Soviet Union to live the openly Jewish lifestyle he craved.

“Witnesses can attest to the fact  that I never violated Shabbat, ate non-kosher meat or ate chametz (leaven) on Pesach,” he said.

This was not the norm. Jewish law stipulates that one must do anything to survive, aside for idolatry, murder or adultery, and every competent Rabbi would rule that my grandfather was obligated to eat whatever he had access to and to work on Shabbat rather than be in solitary confinement for five days each week. (This happened for two years straight!)

“Why did you risk your life to keep Shabbat and Kashrut under such impossible circumstances?” I asked him. “You weren’t obligated to do so.”

He smiled and after several minutes he shared with me a thought I am still trying to digest fourteen years later.

Twenty five years in Siberia was a veritable death sentence. He knew that he would never make it out alive. “Why should I violate Shabbat? Why should I eat non-kosher meat?”

Think about that. An orphaned teenager, condemned to a slow and painful death by a tyrannical government did not forget for a moment that G-d was with him even in the gulags and risked everything in order to connect with G-d through Shabbat and Kashrut.

The opening statement of this week’s parsha Chukat reads “This is the Chukah (statute) of the Torah.” Referring to the laws of ritual purity and impurity, the Torah clarifies that they transcend logic and must be accepted unquestioningly. That’s the way it is.

In a broader sense, this attitude of unquestioning acceptance is relevant in all areas of Jewish life, since the foundation of healthy Jewish living is unwavering loyalty to G-d and His commandments, because that’s the way it is.

Thankfully my grandfather’s sentence was commuted seven years later when Stalin died, and he went on to live a life rich with meaning and fulfillment. He was an inspiration to so many and he merited to have a large family across the globe who are the Rebbe’s emissaries for life. 

But for me it is most significant that his yartzeit (anniversary of passing) will be observed this Shabbat as we read parshat Chukat. He was the paragon of unwavering loyalty to G-d and ironclad commitment to living Jewishly at all costs, even when it made no sense, because that’s the way it is.

I hope to emulate his example more often.

 

The Rebbe Teaches Us Today

 

Everyone seeks positivity. Even the most bitter, self absorbed narcissist prefers smiling over scowling and complimenting over scolding. The trouble is learning how.

Lately I’ve been reading observations about the Rebbe by diverse personalities. As this Shabbat marks 25 years since the Rebbe’s passing on the third of Tammuz 1994, academics, journalists, rabbis and laymen in the global Jewish community feel compelled to pay tribute in various ways.

Most intriguing for me, though certainly not surprising, is the fact that many of them reflect on a personal connection they feel with the Rebbe, although most never met him in person.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks attributes every major decision of his adult life to the Rebbe; Yossi Klein Halevi carries around a dollar bill he received from the Rebbe through a friend; Liel Leibovitz has a photo of the Rebbe in her wallet. All three started viewing themselves and others differently after forging this connection.

Their diversity illustrates that every type of Jew can benefit from the Rebbe’s empowering teachings in a practical and personal way, with an emphasis on seeing the good in everything and everyone and identifying positive opportunity everywhere.

To the Rebbe this was not merely a slogan. For over forty years he educated all that would listen a deeply sophisticated intellectual Torah framework through which we can, not only believe in the potential good possessed by all but actually understand it and reveal it.

Here is an example of a radical twist in historical perception that I learned from the Rebbe in this week's parsha. 

Korach instigated a misguided revolt against Moshe, claiming that Aharon's appointment to priesthood was nepotism. While he is  condemned in almost every area of Torah scholarship, the Rebbe finds a redemptive angle to Korach - based on traditional Torah sources we have been studying for millennia.

His desire to be a Kohen and be privy to the immersive divine experience of the Temple service  is something we should all strive for. Certainly not in practice (because priesthood is exclusively a patriarchal inheritance) but being entirely focused on G-d is an attitude we can and should develop in our daily life.

Although this seeming revision of Korach is radical on the surface, in the paradigm of the Rebbe's Torah framework it is the most rational conclusion. Korach's actions are never justified, but an inner reading of his argument inspires us to become better. 

The Rebbe does not create motivational catch phrases or self help programs for life struggles. He shows us how to learn Torah, understand its eternal truth and view reality from its lenses.

Through studying the Rebbe's teachings and emulating his ways we become connected today, 25 years after his physical presence has left our world.

But learning is key.

As we observe the Rebbe's yartzeit, I encourage you to taste the beauty and depth of the Rebbe's wisdom readily available in the vast online knowledge base in over a dozen languages. Do it regularly.

This will prepare ourselves and the entire world for the era of Moshiach when the inherent good in everything will be revealed.

 

Spoiler Alert

 

In the pre internet world there was a die hard Jets fan who never missed watching a football game.  He was leaving town one week and asked a friend to tape the game for him so he could watch it upon his return and did not read the sports section for a full week so as not to ruin the excitement of watching the recorded game.

When he retrieved the VHS a week later his benefactor said "What a game! They were down by 21 points at halftime and made such a sweet comeback in the last five minutes!"

"Why did you spoil it for me?!" the fan exclaimed exasperated.

Nevertheless, as a devoted fan he dutifully sat down to watch the game from beginning to end. Halfway through the game he commented “When I know the outcome of the game is a good one, even watching my beloved team play so poorly doesn’t agitate me that much at all!”

In this week’s parsha we learn of the dramatic story of the spies sent by Moshe to scout the Land of Israel. Ten of the twelve spies returned with a dreadful report of giant fortresses and powerful warriors lying in wait and that any attempt to conquer the land would fail.

Sadly, the Jews expressed the greatest lack of faith in G-d who had delivered them from Egyptian slavery and sustained them in the harsh wilderness and started a full on revolt.

This was a fatal blow and every member of that generation was barred from entering Israel and condemned to death. G-d’s wrath was so great that all Moshe could do to mitigate the calamity was to negotiate terms in which 600,000 men would not die immediately, rather in a prolonged manner over the course of forty years. Only the next generation would inherit the Promised Land.

In the long term, this episode lives on in infamy as the tragic day of Tisha B’Av - the anniversary of almost every major Jewish tragedy.

It is striking that immediately following the story of the spies in the Torah we read this (Numbers 15:2): “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you arrive in the Land of your dwelling place, which I am giving you…”

Immediately after recording the greatest communal failure in Jewish history, G-d reassures us that the future is bright and there are many happy days to come.

At times one can be confronted with a debilitating tragedy of his or her own making with staggering consequences. Remember that all is not lost and your personal “promised land” is just beyond the horizon. The same is true on the communal level as well.

I’m not suggesting we approach crisis lightly. But we must certainly cut away the angst and stress, because G-d spoiled the plot for us by sharing that as long as we follow the guidelines of the Torah, it will all turn out for the best, culminating in the realization of the greatest “Promised Land” - the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

 

No Such Thing as a Wandering Jew

 

One of the most enduring caricatures of “the Jew” is the image of a bearded hunchback, holding a sack over his shoulder and leaning on a wanderer’s stick. The exiled wandering Jew.

For many, the fact that our immediate ancestors hailed from faraway lands and made fascinating journeys to the shores of this country or another is a badge of honor and the stuff that great stories and family legends are made of.

Some suggest we are wanderers by nature since our ancestors wandered for forty years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land.

Absolutely false.

This week’s parsha provides a vivid description of how the Israelites travelled through the desert as a community of several million strong.

The epicenter of the Israelite camp was the Mishkan (Tabernacle) with all twelve tribes camped around it, three tribes in each direction. A divine cloud hovered over the Mishkan  at all times, and as long as it was there, the Israelites stayed put.

When the cloud lifted, the message was clear that it was time to move on to the next destination. Without knowing where they were headed everyone picked up and followed the cloud until it came to a standstill, indicating that they had reached their destination.

No mortal knew how long they would remain in any specific place nor where the next journey would take them. “They travelled according to G-d’s instruction (the moving cloud) and the camped according to G-d’s instruction (the halted cloud).”

Our ancestors never wandered; they travelled according to a divine plan.

The infancy of Judaism was characterized by the experience of travelling based on a transparently divine plan to teach us that we are forever following a divine GPS.

While you may think you moved to this city for a job opportunity, or chose that vacation spot for its breathtaking beauty or decided to attend a specific university because you won a full scholarship there - you’re wrong. You are in this very spot at this very moment because G-d has a specific mission that only you can accomplish right here and now.

You think your ancestors immigrated from Eastern Europe because they were persecuted and sought a better life across the Atlantic? That may be what they were thinking, but this week’s parsha enlightens us to the fact that they were brought to this blessed country for a divine purpose.

Although where we are is never up to us, what we actually accomplish there is entirely up to us. By utilizing every opportunity to learn more Torah, do more Mitzvot and inspire others to do the same, we live up to the expectations of the divine "master planner" and prepare all of humanity for the ultimate destination, the era of redemption when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Standoff with the Soviets

It was close to midnight on a hot summer night in 1927 in Leningrad.

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson was having dinner with his family after a long session of private meetings with individuals seeking spiritual counseling, life guidance and a listening ear, known in Chabad as “Yechidus.” A squad of soviet police led by two agents of the Yevsektzia (the notorious ‘Jewish section’ of the GPU (forerunner of the KGB)) barged into the apartment.

As the leader of the Chabad movement since 1920 he developed and coordinated a massive network of underground Jewish education and infrastructure in direct defiance of the communists’ wishes to destroy all organized religious life in the Soviet Union.

The ruthless Yevsektzia was desperate to bring Jewish life to an end, and one week after Shavuot of 1927 they conducted a thorough midnight search of his apartment to uncover incriminating evidence of “anti-revolutionary activities” and placed him under arrest. He was supposed to face a firing squad that night, but miraculously the worst was averted and due to immense international pressure and many miracles, within a month, on the 12th of Tammuz, he was a free man.

The saga of the previous Rebbe’s arrest and liberation is fascinating and I urge you to read more about it here, but I would like to focus on a short episode that occurred on that evening 92 years ago as described in his diary.

They began their search in the room of my daughters, Chaya Mussia and Sheine, and asked them: “What party do you belong to?”  “We belong to our father’s party,” they replied; “we are nonpartisan daughters of Israel. We are fond of the old ways of our Patriarch Israel, and detest the new aspirations.”

They displayed the type of pride every Jew ought to have. New trends and ideas do not intimidate us, no matter how much brute force or influence their adherents may wield. Torah is eternally true and does not bend to external forces.

The name of this week’s parsha “Naso” can be translated to mean “Lift up their heads.” The mandate for Moshe to inspire the Jewish people to be forever proud of the divine gift they received at Sinai and to march through history with heads held high.

This fierce pride is our badge of honor and the secret ingredient to our ability to survive under all circumstances, and it can only be nurtured through continuous Torah study and ever increasing Mitzvah observance.

While we are still under the influence of Shavuot and the commemoration of Sinai, find ways to nurture your Jewish pride and share it with family and friends so that we can all hold our heads higher and prouder until we fulfill our collective mission to make our world a divine dwelling, ushering in the era of redemption when peace and prosperity will reign for all. 

 

Are Your Guarantors Lined Up?

 

In anticipation for the Giving of the Torah G-d requested the Jewish people provide guarantors to ensure that the Torah remain relevant forever.

The Jews first suggested our three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Each one of these spiritual giants were worthy of such an honor and the combined merits of all three would surely convince G-d that the Jews mean business. Alas, this idea was not acceptable to G-d.

The prophets were next in line. In each generation, a righteous leader would inspire the people to strengthen their Torah study, mitzvah observance and participation. These constant reminders will ensure the Torah remains part and parcel of Jewish life. This offer was rejected as well.

Finally, the Jewish Nation nominated their children. They will be educated to live according to the Torah and to educate the subsequent generations as well. Jackpot! G-d accepted this offer and the dramatic events of Sinai proceeded to change reality forever.

Why does education serve as the catalyst for receiving the Torah?

Offering the Patriarchs as a first choice was indicative of the human tendency to rely on the virtue of lineage. We imagine that the memory of an illustrious line of worthy ancestors is sufficient to keep tradition alive. Such a strategy has proven faulty and rarely effective.

The second offer is problematic as well. There is a tendency to designate a select few individuals to be the spiritual conscience of the community. Relying on the wakeup calls of prophets is hardly a way to ensure the continuity of Torah life.

By designating their children as the guarantors of the Torah, the parents committed themselves to an uncompromising standard. Far more than simply training the youngsters in the academic depths of Torah study during school hours, educating a child is a constant endeavor.

Kids are inquisitive and genuine. Successfully educating them demands constant engagement, self-introspection and, primarily, action. The exemplary behavior of parents is the most crucial ingredient in raising proud, passionate and observant Jews.

While lineage and inspiration are certainly helpful, the all-encompassing task of serving as role models and teachers for the next generation is the secret to the eternity of Judaism. And so each year, G-d expects us to renew our commitment to ensure our children continue to fill the vital role of guarantors.

 

Seven Seventy

Tatty 770.jpg 

The Rebbe leaves Seven Seventy on Erev Yom Kippur 1983. I can be seen in the background near the doorway.

On Wednesday we experienced a historic event 33 years in the making. Laying the symbolic foundation stone for the new Chabad Lubavitch Center for Jewish Life at the Groundbreaking ceremony set the tone for the future of our community.

I was grateful to be flanked by such a wonderful group of friends and supporters and everyone in attendance made a statement of encouragement and enthusiasm of the great accomplishments in store for Judaism in El Paso. It was truly a moment of celebration.

In planning the architecture of the new edifice, much care was taken to serve the needs of our diverse and growing community. A spacious sanctuary, social hall and Judaic library will allow for activities to happen simultaneously in a comfortable and proper manner.

But the entrance will be the masterpiece. The front door is the place where everyone is welcomed and embraced with unconditional love. We therefore chose to build the entranceway in the likeness of Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, known simply as “Seven Seventy” (its address is 770 Eastern Parkway) because the facade of that iconic building in Brooklyn is symbolic of everything Chabad stands for.

“Seven Seventy” served as the Rebbe’s base of operations and in its hallowed halls he educated and inspired generations of students to dedicate their lives to strengthening Judaism in every corner of the globe. Through its doors entered those seeking clarity and healing together with the curious and the content and everyone left empowered to bring the light and beauty of Torah to another part of the universe. Just seeing the three pointed tops of the brown-brick building is sufficient to elevate the spirit and gladden the heart.

For ten years I was privileged to study at Rabbinical schools in Brooklyn and every day I spent time in Seven Seventy. Unforgettable memories of praying with the Rebbe, observing many celebrations and participating in every farbrengen (chassidic gathering) when the Rebbe taught Torah and inspired thousands for many hours at a time.

In the summer of 1986, Chani and I together with our new born son Levi, hailed a taxi to the airport to catch our one-way flight to El Paso - from Seven Seventy. We had the mandate to bring the spirit of Seven Seventy to El Paso and establish a Chabad House for every Jew to feel at home. A space for everyone to celebrate Judaism at their pace.

With your help we have succeeded in doing so and we are proud that the new era of our journey in El Paso will bring a physical likeness of Seven Seventy to our midst.

Thank you to everyone for joining us on Wednesday (check out the full photo album here) and thank you to all who have thus far contributed to the capital campaign. We are halfway to our goal and if you have not participated yet, please consider partnering with us in this auspicious project. Please visit chabadelpaso.com/build for more information about the new building and for dedication opportunities.

I am so proud to be building the future together with you.

 

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