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Rabbis' Blog

Everyone has a spark of goodness

As published in the El Paso Times

For the first time in recent history, the entire world experienced a common crisis for an extended period of time. Even as we gradually resume pre-Covid routines, it will never be the same.

I’ve seen first-hand the deep toll this year of Covid has taken on individuals, young and old. No one came away unaffected. Looking back at this deeply scarring year, we may ask ourselves a simple question: Do we, as human beings, have what it takes to confront this kind of adversity? Or for that matter any kind of difficulty that challenges us to our core?

The answer, I believe is yes. Simply put, there is something embedded in the human psyche that, if tapped into properly, can serve as an anchor for every human being to overcome adversity large or small and confront the unexpected changes we experience all the time.

The late Yehuda Avner served on the personal staff of five Israeli Prime Ministers. In 1977 he had a private meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the leader of the global Chabad-Lubavitch movement. During the lengthy conversation, Avner asked the Rebbe what exactly the role of a rebbe is.

“I will tell you what I’m trying to do,” the Rebbe replied. “Imagine you are looking at a cupboard, and you see a candle there, but I tell you that it is not a candle—it is a lump of wax with a piece of string inside. When does the wax and the wick become a candle? When one brings a flame to the wick. That is when the wax and the wick fulfill the purpose for which they were created.”

“And that is what I try to do—to help everyone fulfill the purpose for which they were created.”

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Avner asked  “Has the Rebbe lit my candle?” He answered, “No. I have given you the match. Only you can light your own candle.”

There is a fundamental premise in Judaism that everyone has a spark of goodness and justice within them. A unique energy that empowers them to impact the world for the good; the purpose of their creation. Unfortunately, this spirit of goodness can sometimes be dimmed and difficult to reach or even recognize, but the potential always remains.

It was this spark of goodness that the Rebbe sought to empower every individual to reveal. Just as a flame will be bright and warm under all circumstances; the Rebbe believed and taught that the core essence of goodness and morality within every person can survive under all circumstances and only needs to be revealed.

Eighty years ago, in the summer of 1941, the Rebbe and his wife arrived in the US after escaping the horrors of the Holocaust. Upon his arrival he set up a revolutionary outreach program that set the stage for the timeless traditions of Judaism to thrive and flourish in a society dominated by assimilation. When others felt that old-school ideas needed to be refreshed and updated to fit with modern times, the Rebbe illustrated that the core values of Judaism, morality and ethics were as timeless and resilient as the flame of a candle.

Our world is changing rapidly in so many ways. By focusing on the principles of decent human conduct, predicated on the awareness that every thought, speech and action is important to G-d and impacts the world around us, we remain anchored to an unchangeable truth. This gives us the strength to flame the spark of goodness within us and others into an inferno of positivity, good will and inspiration.

On Sunday, June 13 we observe the 27th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing in 1994. It’s an auspicious time for us all to reflect on how we can increase in acts of goodness and kindness, and encourage others to do so as well. To set aside time daily for prayer or quiet contemplation on the higher purpose and meaning of life. Ensuring that our own candles shine brightly and help others light their own, thereby preparing our little corner of the world for an era of true world peace and tranquility for all.

Mastering Transition

By nature I’m not a risk taker but change is inevitable and knowing how to embrace transition is crucial to self growth and success.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the debacle of the spies. On the threshold of inheriting the Promised Land, the Israelites demanded Moshe send spies to scout out the land. The best and brightest were chosen for the delicate mission, but upon their return most of them claimed that was impossible. 

They did not lie, per se, but framed their report in a way that frightened their brethren who wailed all night bemoaning their misfortune, infuriating G-d with devastating consequences: The Israelites spent forty years in the barren desert until the entire generation died and their children inherited the land instead.

Why would our nation's finest twist the truth to discourage the Jews from marching into the Land of Israel? What could they possibly gain from such  a conspiracy?

In the desert the Jews were in a spiritual utopia, experiencing daily miracles and studying Torah full time. Settling the land would mean a drastic transition to normalcy and these leaders feared that the inevitable preoccupation with farming and civic life would distract the people from their relationship with G-d.

Ironically, the spies were not conspiring against the people and only had their best interests in mind, but they misunderstood what Judaism is all about. While the insulated ghetto experience that allows one to focus on spiritual growth without distraction may be a style of Jewish living, it's not the ultimate goal. Judaism is meant to flourish within the physical and mundane, and struggling with temptation and distraction is part of nurturing our relationship with G-d. By forgetting the core purpose of Judaism, the spies resisted this crucial transition and brought disaster upon themselves and their people.

Tuesday will mark 80 years since the Rebbe and his wife Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka arrived in America. This date is significant, not only because of their miraculous escape from Nazi occupied Europe, but becasue it marks the beginning of a new era in Jewish life.

The Jewish pre-war migration to America came with a significant loss of Jewish observance, relegating tradition to the “Old World'' of European Jewry. When the previous Rebbe arrived in America in 1940, he established an “Old-World” style Yeshiva to prove that “old traditions” can flourish in America as well, but when the Rebbe arrived a year later, his mission was different: To harness the innovations, progress and culture of the “New World” to promote the timeless truths of Judaism and morality. 

This defines the Rebbe’s leadership and impact on the world at large: Guiding us in mastering the drastic transitions we constantly face in our modern era - while remaining true to the core mission of Judaism - to properly prepare the world for the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all humanity.

 

Light will always be conspicuous

Anti-Semitism. Unfortunately we all know what it is and yet seem surprised every time it rears its ugly head. The past few weeks there has been increased chatter about anti-Semitism due to an uptick of anti-Semitic incidents, allegedly in connection with the recent events in Israel. 

Don’t allow the noise to convince you that anti-Semitism is rational or that its recent increase is a reaction to something specific. Ever since Abraham started doing his thing about 4,000 years ago, the hatred to his message and family has been an ever present cancer in society.

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where the overwhelming majority of civilized people reject and condemn anti-Semitism - for which I am grateful. But the problem still persists and the question is how do we respond as Jews.

In January 2020 Menachem Wecker, an author at Religion News Service, was working on an article entitled “Amid rising anti-Semitism, Orthodox Jews weigh safety with being conspicuously Jewish” and wanted to hear from someone who really stands out as a minority: How does it feel to be one of two conspicuously dressed Chassdic Jews living in a city of 800,000?

I was happy to share that I always feel safe here in town and my conspicuous Jewish garb earns me nothing but respect. In fact, the occasional curiosity about my clothing affords me the opportunity to share a message that will resonate and inspire.

In this week’s parsha Beha’alolsecha we learn about the daily kindling of the Menorah in the Holy Temple. When the Tabernacle was inaugurated in the desert, Aharon the High Priest was upset that he was excluded from the inauguration of the altar, done by the other leaders of the twelve tribes. G-d promised Aharon that the flames of the Menorah, that only his tribe would kindle, would remain a symbol of Jewish identity and continuity for all time.

Today the Menorah remains a ubiquitous symbol of Judaism and the flame is an icon of the Jewish soul.

The job of a flame is to illuminate, to inspire and bring warmth. A flame needs to be in the open to fulfill its role and is no good when it’s hiding. That's why Judaism makes us Jews so easily identifiable, because we have a crucial role to play in the world.

Our visibility makes us a beacon - not a target.

While I am painfully aware that many Jews suffer from anti-Semitism, trying to hide our Jewishness won’t help. It will only make things worse. We must embrace our role in the world and wear our identity proudly for all to see.

The only practical response to the menace of anti-Semitism is to be even more openly Jewish than before, because eventually the light of our personal and collective Menorah will illuminate the entire world with the imminent arrival of Moshiach, when there will be peace and tranquility for all.

 

Beyond the professionalism

A Jew once wrote to the Rebbe “Although I am of Chassidic pedigree I am not a professional chassid.” In response the Rebbe explained that there is no such thing as a “professional chassid.”

“One who views the function of a chassid as a profession missed the entire point of the Chassidic lifestyle and philosophy, which is the inspiration of the mind and the passion of the heart.”

This week’s parsha Naso holds the distinction of being the single longest Torah portion, clocking in a whopping 176 verses. Equally amazing and actually perplexing is the fact that 71 of these verses are sets of six almost identical verses.

A year after leaving Egypt the Jewish people built a Tabernacle in the desert to serve as a dwelling for G-d in their midst. When it was inaugurated on the first day of Nissan the leaders of the twelve tribes presented special sacrifices to inaugurate the altar on twelve separate days.

All twelve leaders offered the identical, precise formula of sacrifices. The same number of cows, sheep, rams and goats. Even the weight of the silver bowls containing the flour for meal offerings and the incense were uniform. All twelve paragraphs describing the sacrifices are essentially copy and paste aside for the days and names of the tribes and their leaders. Why not record the formula once and conclude that each respective leader offered the same sacrifices on their respective day?

The question becomes more acute in light of the fact that thousands of laws regarding Mitzvot that are relevant to us on a constant basis are barely mentioned in the Torah, and here the Torah records a one-time event with monotonous and unnecessary repetition!

Our sages explain that while the leaders offered the exact same sacrifices, the intentions and prayers that accompanied the sacrifices were vastly different. Each one focused on a theme most relevant to their tribe. Recording the formula once and concluding that the others did exactly the same would be a lie. Because each day’s sacrifice was really “different.”

Someone once asked Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz if reciting the same prayers every day gets boring. He remarked that while the words are the same, the person reciting them is different every day. “And if you’re the same today as you were yesterday, then you are boring.”

The lengthy record of the inauguration of the altar 3,332 years ago teaches us that while Torah study, Mitzvah observance and prayer have a defined formula - this is not one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter religiosity. When we engage our minds and hearts in the Mitzvot we do and the prayers we recite they become truly personal - worthy of being recorded in the story of life as your unique contribution to making our world a better place.

Judaism must be professional - executed precisely and properly - yet dynamic and personal with our personal passion and devotion.

There is something we all can do

This week was terrifying because I was getting reports of the violence on the streets and the rockets raining down on Israel directly from friends and family and in real time. Not through tweets, media reports or celebrity newscasters. From thousands of miles away I watched family members living in all parts of Israel rush their kids to bomb shelters multiple times in the middle of the night.

Heard about the lynchings going on? Here is a story I heard from the victim which was not reported in the media, because of its happy ending.

I’m on a WhatsApp group with a friend living in Afula, Israel. Each week he encourages dozens of Jews to wrap Tefillin and his weekly posts are quite inspiring.

On Tuesday night he posted to the group that while driving that evening his car was suddenly surrounded by rioting Arabs throwing stones and shouting at him. They managed to open his car door, but he miraculously kept his cool, pressed the gas pedal hard and managed to escape the inevitable lynch. His car windows were smashed and he had cuts and bruises but by a clear miracle he escaped safe and sound. Seeing the photos he posted was very hard for me, and while thankful that he was alright I couldn’t help imagining how traumatic the experience was for him.

Every day I study the Rebbe’s letters and am currently studying the letters from the summer of 1967. In the weeks preceding the Six Day War, as the entire Jewish world trembled from the impending Arab attack, the Rebbe launched a massive campaign to encourage every Jewish male over the age of 13 to wrap Tefillin. Every Mitzvah has a unique quality and Tefillin is the key to Jewish security, the Rebbe explained. (Learn more about this here.)

On Tuesday night I was amazed to providentially read a letter the Rebbe sent to the Afula chief of police thanking him for sharing the good news about the Tefillin campaign in Afula! The Rebbe continues to explain how Tefillin provides much needed spiritual and physical security for all Israel.

I sent a photo of the letter to my friend in Afula and he responded that indeed, as he miraculously managed to escape the lynch, he was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that his passion for inspiring Jews to wrap Tefillin every week certainly played a role in his miracle.

In a few days we will celebrate Shavuot: 3,333 years from the revelation at Sinai. It was an event that transformed us from twelve Abrahamic tribes into a Jewish nation, that each and every individual Jew is personally responsible and interconnected with each other. Just like the health of every organ of the body is relevant to all the other organs, one Jew’s Mitzvah affects all Jews wherever they may be.

I hope and pray that the worst has passed for the Jews in Israel and they will have only peace and tranquility from now on, but clearly there is something that all of us can and should be doing for them. So here are some ideas:

Men over 13 years should wrap Tefillin on weekdays. It would be my pleasure to help you do this Mitzvah. Please reach out to schedule a time to meet and I’ll guide you through this special Mitzvah. Now might be a good time to purchase your own pair, or to have your Tefillin checked to ensure it’s still kosher. Let’s arm up with Tefillin and help our brothers and sisters in the IDF protect Israel!

Women and girls of all ages should light Shabbat and festival candles at the proper time. In the next few days we have extra opportunities to brighten up the world: this Friday evening at 7:38pm (read instructions and blessings here), Sunday evening for Shavuot at 7:39pm and on Monday evening please light the candles from a pre-existent flame after 8:38pm (read instructions and blessings here). May the light of the Shabbat and festival flames outshine and neutralize the flashing brightness seen this week over Israel’s nighttime skies from Hamas’s rockets and Israel’s Iron Dome. May it never need to be used again!

Millions of Israelis needed to hunker down in bomb shelters and safe rooms this week. Let’s beef up our home security by ensuring that we have proper Mezuzahs on all the doors of our homes. Have yours been checked in the past few years to ensure they retain their kosherness? Are you sure there is a proper scroll in the Mezuzah case? Do you need to purchase more Mezuzahs for more doors in your home? It will be my pleasure to help you with all your Mezuzah needs. Please reach out!

May all our collective Mitzvot immediately usher in the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all humanity.

 

 

 

Shavuot, Torah and Science: Interview with Dr. Alexander Friedman

 Alexander Friedman.jpg

Dr. Alexander Friedman earned his doctoral degree in brain physiology from Bar-llan University (BIU) in Israel and joined UTEP last year after completing his postdoctoral training and working as a research scientist at MIT for 10 years. He also authored three major publications in the Cell journal and two major publications in the PNAS journal.

 
Dr. Friedman moved to El Paso in August 2020 together with his wife Miriam and their children Raizy (5) and Itzik (3). A chassidic scholar and graduate of the prestigious Chabad Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, Israel Dr. Friedman combines a unique passion for Torah and the exact sciences.

The following interview was published in the El Paso Chabad Times in honor of Shavuot.

Chabad Times: What led you to become a scientist?

Dr. Alexander Friedaman: I was born to a family of scientists in the former Soviet Union. My grandfather Dr. Olodovsky was a prestigious physicist and both my grandmothers were science professors. It was a profession many Jews preferred since it was possible to observe Shabbat with minimal hassle.

Providing a proper Jewish education in the USSR was very difficult but my parents did their best under the circumstances. I was always attracted to the sciences and after applying to several universities I was accepted to Machon Lev in Jerusalem which led me to make Aliyah to Israel.

Machon Lev combines a university education and a Yeshiva education and while earning my B.A. I caught up on my Judaic studies as well. I was introduced to Chassidic philosophy by Dr. Yaakov Freidman, a great scientist in his own right, and I decided to spend a gap year pursuing more intense Torah study at the main Chabad Yeshiva in Israel. After a year I wanted to continue full time, but Rabbi Zalman Gopin, the chief Chassidic mentor at the Yeshivah insisted that I earn my doctorate.

I enrolled in Bar-Ilan University which is a half hour drive away from the Yeshiva and divided my day between the Yeshiva and the university.

CT: Is it possible to balance these two seemingly opposite studies?

AF: I admit they were very long and grueling days, but they were stimulating and rewarding. Rabbi Gopin explained to me that although learning Torah full time is a privilege, with my background and education it was crucial for me to excel in science to discover and illustrate how it all blends beautifully with Torah teachings and observance. It’s not the typical route for a Yeshiva student, but everyone has their journey and purpose in life. Being simultaneously submerged in both worlds was a unique experience that shaped my life work ever since.

CT: Please explain how your scientific research enhances your appreciation of Judaism and vice versa.

AF: The definition of science is discovering the principles of the organization of the universe. When studying physics, chemistry and biology you discover how complex yet astoundingly exact nature really is. Obviously none of this could happen randomly and it was certainly created by a superpower.

My field of research is brain physiology and, let me tell you, even the brain of a mouse is extremely complex. The tremendous discoveries we make in their brains help us understand the human brain which is far more sophisticated. To date we understand precious little about the nerve center of our body, yet we take for granted that there are billions of these in the world. Multiply this by trillions of other organisms, minerals and particles and you have yourself an awesome universe created and maintained by an awesome creator.

5,781 years ago, when Adam the first human being was created on the day we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, he intuitively realized this and called out to creation to acknowledge G-d’s sovereignty. That’s why the High Holy Days liturgy is packed with these ideas and it’s the core of what Judaism is all about.

Soon we will celebrate Shavuot; 3,333 years since G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish nation at Mt. Sinai. Fascinatingly, this only happened after Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who was also the greatest scientist and philosopher at the time recognized that G-d is the supreme power of the universe.

When the Jews stood at Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments from G-d, all humanity realized with brilliant clarity - albeit temporarily - that all of nature is truly a reflection of G-d. This was preceded by Jethro’s conversion to Judaism to illustrate how this clarity must come from within nature itself. The more we know about nature the more we know G-d.

Since then the world is progressing in its scientific knowledge and its appreciation for and knowledge of G-d so that the Sinai experience becomes a permanent reality. This is the definition of the Messianic Era; that every created being will recognize the creator. Not only Jews - everyone!

CT: Have you found this attitude in modern science as well?

AF: Certainly. Sir Isaac Newton defined scientific experiments as our way of asking G-d how to do things. In my opinion he continues to be the most important scientist of the modern era and I find it fascinating that the overwhelming majority of his works were translations of Torah scholarship. Ivan Pavlov, the father of brain physiology and the legendary chemist Dmitri Mendeleev were both deeply religious and their religious convictions impacted their scientific work.

Faith does not hamper scientific discovery. It enhances it, just like it enhances every detail of life.

CT: Do you feel this idea can be experienced by everyone?

AF: Look, such an attitude needs to be nurtured. I study Chassidic philosophy daily to keep this perspective fresh and relatable. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to appreciate how complex and awesome our world is, but to experience life in a way that allows you to discover the divine element in everything and to introduce peace and serenity into every detail of life - it’s crucial to study Chassidic philosophy.

The good news is that there is so much available in multiple languages in so many formats and platforms and it’s very convenient to learn it nowadays. Clearly this is another sign of the imminence of the Messianic era when, as Maimonides writes, the knowledge of G-d will fill  the entire world and there will be global peace and tranquility for all.

 

When the teacher stays for detention

On a recent flight I was reminded of the famous observation that when choosing a surgeon, even for a routine surgery, one will investigate credentials and reputation, but we barely take notice of the pilot when boarding a plane, let alone investigate whether he really knows how to fly the big bird.

The reason is simple; the pilot is flying in the plane together with us and if he’s confident enough to occupy the cockpit, I’m fine relaxing in economy with a book. The surgeon, on the other hand, will go home to his family even if the surgery is not a slam dunk more investigation is appropriate.

Let’s analyze two similar scenarios regarding detention after school hours.

Jimmy disrupted class and was punished with one hour of detention after school. He’s really upset because he would miss out on the first few innings of the junior league softball game. Seeing his teacher exit the school building and drive away makes him even more upset because, in his childish mind, he feels it unfair that the teacher who caused him to miss out on his after-school plans did not get her after-school plans disrupted.

Here’s the alternative scenario: there is no official detention room at the school and Jimmy’s teacher needs to stay in the classroom with him for an hour so he could suffer the consequences of disrupting class. While missing the first innings of the softball game is still very upsetting, the fact that the teacher stayed behind as well makes Jimmy feel slightly differently about it.

This week’s parsha Bechukosai deals with the fundamental Jewish belief of reward and punishment. The idea is simple: if we observe the Torah and Mitzvot G-d will grant us health, wealth and peace. If not, there is a laundry list of horrifying curses that will befall the Jewish people as a consequence for violating the divine covenant. But after 30 verses of curses, culminating with the curse of exile, the Torah concludes with the following:

“Despite all this, while they are in their enemies’ land, I will not be revolted by them nor will I reject them to obliterate them.” (Leviticus 26:44)

When we are in exile, G-d is in exile together with us. When we experience misfortune, tragedy and calamity, G-d experiences the pain and suffering together with us. Even when we are sullied with sin and project an odor of egocentrism, self centeredness and corruption, G-d still cherishes us unconditionally and never leaves us. We might be in detention, missing out on some amazing spiritual stuff, but G-d is in detention together with us and supports us in cleaning up our mess.

This is tremendously empowering and should inspire us to learn more Torah and do even more Mitzvot despite the challenges of exile, thereby preparing ourselves and the world for the imminent redemption when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

 

 

 

Living the Paradox

Yesterday as I planned my weekly message I thought about the fact that many of my cousins, friends and even casual acquaintances remember my birthday. Often when I share that I was born on Lag B’Omer the response is an incredulous “Really? On the actual day?! Not a day earlier or a day later?” There is something unique about it that makes the fact I was born on that day so memorable to family and friends.

It’s an auspicious day because it marks the anniversary of the passing of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, a true Jewish hero, one of the greatest Talmudic masters and the father of Jewish mysticism. He specifically instructed that it be observed as a day of unbridled joy and celebration and for centuries the traditions of Lag B’Omer celebrations throughout the world, especially near Rabi Shimon’s gravesite in Meron, Israel have been the stuff of legends. In many ways it eclipses all the other traditional Jewish celebrations and its spiritual significance is tremendous.

I had the message all planned out when news broke that Israel’s worst-ever civil disaster was unfolding at the Lag B’Omer celebration in Meron. The scenes and stories of the tragedy are horrific and the pain and suffering of the over 100 injured and the dozens of families who lost their loved ones is absolutely terrifying.

If every tragedy is beyond our comprehension, the time and place of this specific catastrophe - ground zero of the historic Lag B’Omer celebrations - makes it much more jarring and difficult to grasp. The paradox is excruciatingly numbing.

The life of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai was a similar paradox. Living in the era immediately following the destruction of the Holy Temple, he experienced the worst exile had to offer. His beloved teacher Rabi Akiva was raked to death by the Roman occupiers and Rabi Shimon himself hid in a cave for 13 years because the local Roman governor had signed his death warrant and placed a bounty on his head.

Nevertheless our sages teach us that Rabi Shimon lived a life so connected to the divine that for him it was as if the Holy Temple had never been destroyed and his reality reflected that of the future redemption. Is it possible for a fugitive to live a life of ultimate freedom?

Rabi Shimon’s life revolved around Torah study. He served as a master teacher of its legalities - he is quoted in every chapter of the Talmud - while simultaneously developing and revealing its innermost dimensions - authoring the first authoritative Kabbalisitc work called the Zohar for posterity.

His complete immersion in Torah allowed him to process the world from the lens of Torah. Fully onscious of the religious oppression he and his coreligionists experienced at the time, his spirit remained unshackled and redemption was already a reality for him.

Today we are living through a tragic and painful paradox and I hope and pray that the merit of Rabi Shimon’s teachings pull us through this darkness as one united family. May we experience the final redemption through Moshiach when the world will be cleansed of all pain and suffering forever!

 

Can you resist such an offer?

“Will we walk around like zombies when Moshiach comes?”

This is a real question I was asked by an intelligent and successful individual. I’ve heard this same question articulated in various ways from many - even from religious Jews. I think it’s a great question.

The concept of Moshiach or Messiah has been around for thousands of years and unfortunately most people have no idea what it’s all about. The Bible records numerous prophecies foretelling of a future redemption, but a concrete understanding of what this is all about has eluded the masses for millennia, giving way to egregious misunderstandings resulting in controversy and tragedy.

Another thing many struggle with is the idea that Judaism calls our reality today “exile.” Living in an era of unprecedented religious, social and economic freedom and prosperity can we honestly relate to the idea that we are currently in exile?

The Hebrew language is awesome in that the definition of any given thing can be distilled from its name and an analysis of the Hebrew word for redemption in contrast to the word for exile properly defines redemption in a mature and truthful manner.

Here are the two words in Hebrew and English:

גולה - Exile - Golah

גאולה - Redemption - Geulah

Notice that both words are constructed from the same letters, in the identical sequence with one difference: the word for redemption has the letter “Alef” in it. Alef is the first letter of the Hebrew Alphabet and represents G-d. (Does “Who knows one?” sound familiar?)

So here is the deal with exile and redemption. Everything in this world and every moment of our lives has a divine purpose. But we do not experience the urgency and inevitability of fulfilling that divine purpose, because we do not sense G-d’s presence in every detail of our lives. In fact, choosing right over wrong can often be an excruciating struggle.

“Exile” is a reality in which the “Alef” - G-d is not revealed. Redemption means that G-d will be revealed in the reality so familiar to us. Moshiach will not take us back to the age of camel riding and candle light, nor will he transform us into zombies and lead us into an epic space voyage. Life will continue, but the struggle to be good and to do right will be no more, because our divine purpose and calling will be as perceivable and relatable as the air we breathe.

When all humanity experiences this, there will be no possibility for war, hatred, hunger or competition; an era of true peace and tranquility for all. We will have the best of both worlds: everything good about life today and none of the bad. Can you resist such an offer?

The second of the two Torah portions we read this week “Kedoshim” opens with an instruction for us all to be holy and enumerates dozens of Mitzvot, most of which deal with day-to-day life and not religious rituals. This illustrates that holiness is not about escaping reality, rather revealing divine purpose within reality. This is what redemption is all about.

We can choose to live like that today, even before Moshiach comes. By tuning our senses to G-d’s presence and choosing right over wrong more often than not, we experience our personal redemption and pave the way for global redemption as well.

 

 

We need to be on the same page

Imagine a company in which every single person involved is crystal clear on the company’s vision. From the CEO down to the courier everyone is on the same page and working towards the same exact goal.

Such an enterprise is destined for brilliant success.

3,333 years ago as the Israelites stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah, they became conscious of the ultimate goal of creation. Tradition teaches us that the divine revelation was so transformative that they were healed from any physical ailments and became immortal. The entire world was silent as G-d communicated the Ten Commandments and every detail of creation was consumed by the awareness of the creator.

That reality did not last very long and the world went back to regular soon afterwards. But the experience was important to give us an idea of what the purpose of Judaism really is: to prepare our world for a time that all illness, hunger, war and strife will cease and every detail of reality will be conscious of its purpose.

This is the underlying premise of everything in Judaism and G-d’s ultimate purpose in creation - a perfect world for all which will happen with the arrival of Moshiach.

This week we study two Torah portions Tazria and Metzora. The main theme of both portions is the mystical and miraculous condition known as “Tzara’at” which most translate as “leprosy.” It’s a terrible translation because in addition to being a skin condition it also applied to clothing, leather couches and stone walls. Clearly it has nothing to do with dermatology.

Maimonides explains that Tzara’at was a punishment for gossip and slander. First the walls of the house change color, then the leather implements change color, and even clothing. If one persists in their wickedness, their skin undergoes changes, which causes them to be isolated; a proper consequence for causing division and animosity between people as a result of their gossip.

Interestingly enough this entire discussion of Tzara’at was only practically relevant when there was a Holy Temple functioning in Jerusalem. Jewish mysticism explains that the condition was so miraculous that it was only manifest at a time when our reality was in sync with divine truth and today we are not conditioned to experience these types of spiritual phenomenons.

Tzara’at is about stopping people from speaking badly about each other and engendering peace and unity between us all. This ultimate unity will happen in the era of Moshiach, which is what Judaism has been aiming for from the very beginning. It’s crucial that we all have a better understanding and appreciation of how every detail of Judaism points in this direction, and most importantly, how this ultimate goal is not a pipe dream, rather a process unfolding right now in front of our eyes.

I invite you to join us for a special six week JLI course all about the imminent redemption. Classes will be held on Zoom on Tuesdays at 7:30pm-8:45pm. Please click here to learn more and to register.

Already registered? Invite a friend to discover Judaism’s mission statement and let’s all get on the same page in preparing our world for an era we all so desperately need now!

 

Mission not yet accomplished

The best part of any endeavor is the moment one can smile and say “mission accomplished.”

Several months after the redemption from Egypt our ancestors were given the mission to "make a Sanctuary for Me (G-d) so that I may dwell within them." Every detail of the awesome structure, its beautiful furniture and tapestries, down to its staff’s uniforms were dictated to Moshe with precision.

They were in a desolate wilderness, but upon receiving the divine instructions the Jews spared no efforts to procure the various - even exotic - materials needed and painstakingly prepared the Tabernacle G-d requested of them. Finally the structure was complete and ready for show time.

This week's parsha opens on the eighth day after Moshe had inaugurated the Tabernacle for seven days, offering the daily sacrifices and incense as prescribed.  But nothing happened. The divine presence did not permeate the structure and the people were devastated.

"We worked so hard to build the Tabernacle," they cried to Moshe. "Are we truly not worthy of being G-d's hosts?"

For them, the engineering and artistic achievement of constructing such a beautiful masterpiece in the desert was worthless unless the ultimate goal was accomplished - to merit G-d's revelation in their midst.

This Shabbat will be the 28th day of Nissan. Thirty years ago on this day, following evening services at Lubavitch World Headquarters, the Rebbe spoke to the assembled crowd for a brief 10 minutes.

After describing the spiritual auspiciousness of the day and how the next week would only increase this energy the Rebbe concluded with immense frustration that the fact that Messianic era had not yet arrived has no logical explanation. The fact that everyone was satisfied with and proud of Chabad's tremendous achievements over the last 40 years of the Rebbe's leadership was even more painful.

"How is it possible people are so complacent that Moshiach can possibly not arrive tonight?!" the Rebbe exclaimed.

What the Rebbe said next is too painful to transcribe so I will paraphrase.

Judaism sets forth a clear description of what the Messianic age will look like: An era of world peace, when all bickering and competition between people will cease. There will be no hunger, illness or strife in every corner of the globe and the setting will be right for all of the Torah's 613 commandments to be observed in their entirety. This dramatic transformation will be divinely engineered with the arrival of Moshiach, but it is specifically the Mitzvot that every individual does in the current era that will set the platform for this divine transformation to happen.

While everything that has been achieved until now might be remarkable, the mission has not been accomplished until Moshiach arrives and ushers in the Messianic era. “I have done all that I can do to make this happen,” the Rebbe concluded. “It’s now up to you all to do all that you can to make Moshiach actually come.”

We have our work set out for us and the marker for success is not negotiable. Every day needs to bring more Mitzvot and we need to work at it with the urgency of someone who's behind schedule on the project of their life. Until we merit to strike the final blow to this prolonged exile and usher in the era of redemption for all.

You will make it happen

It was a Sunday afternoon in October of 1991 and the Rebbe was standing in the foyer of Chabad World Headquarters distributing single dollar bills to the thousands who seeked to receive his blessing, advice or simply be in his presence for a few moments. Men, women and children of all stripes were lined up for hours as the Rebbe stood and greeted each one with a blessing and a dollar to be given to charity.

Mr. Gary Tuchman, a fresh new CNN correspondent was in Brooklyn that day with a camera crew to film a story for an upcoming international broadcast. He approached the Rebbe with the cameras running and asked, “Rebbe, what is your message to the world about the Messiah?”

WIthout hesitation the Rebbe responded, “It was already printed in all the press of all the countries: Moshiach is ready to come now, we all must only do something additional in the realm of goodness and kindness.”

“So people should be doing more goodness and kindness for him to come?” Gary followed up.

“At least a little more and then Moshiach will come immediately,” the Rebbe replied and then gave him and each member of his camera crew two double bills for a “double portion of kindness.” (Watch the interview here.)

Tonight begins the final festival days of Pesach known as Shvii Shel Pesach and Acharon Shel Pesach. Seven days after leaving Egyptian slavery the Israelites were chased by their former captors who wished to enslave them once more and were eventually trapped between them and the sea. Then G-d shocked the world with the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. Humanity stood in awe by this astounding display of divine power and the Jews were forever free from slavery.

The final day of Pesach celebrates the redemption to come. During synagogue services we read a chapter from Isaiah describing the arrival of Moshiach and what will look like at that time.

“The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the young goat… the cow and the bear will graze…”

Today it may seem impossible to happen, but the job description of Moshiach is to usher in an era where former enemies will be allies, competitors will compete no more, and the hunters and the hunted will live together in peace. A world in which “there will be neither famine or war, envy or competition for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d.”

Here is the catch. Whereas the first redemption from Egypt was solely dependent on G-d, the final redemption depends on us. And whereas the redemption from Egypt was a Jewish redemption, the final redemption will bring peace and tranquility to the entire universe. It follows that everyone needs to get involved in preparing our world for Moshiach.

The Rebbe distilled this reality succinctly in a soundbite tailor made for the world via CNN - “Add in goodness and kindness” - and then inspired the crew to do an act of giving by handing them each two dollars to give to those in need.

As Jews we prepare for Moshiach through increasing in Torah study and doing more Mitzvot, and we have the obligation and pleasure of involving all humanity in this crucial endeavor by inspiring everyone to increase in acts of goodness and kindness.

 

Hereditary Liberty

On Wednesday evening I was stuck in heavy traffic for close to an hour on the I-10, which I believe was thankfully caused by construction and not an accident, and I couldn’t help feeling frustrated and annoyed by the delay. Inching forward on the freeway can feel very constraining, but as I listened to a recording of the Chassidic gathering the Rebbe held in honor of his 74th birthday (11 Nissan) days before Pesach 1976, I heard the Rebbe deliver a profound perspective on liberty that reframed even my silly nervousness as I sat in traffic.

On Pesach we celebrate liberty. Not a liberty we need to fight for and defend, but a liberty which is hereditary that we just need to tap into, develop and nurture. A liberty that was gifted to us by G-d and can never be taken away from us.

True liberty is freedom of the spirit, not the freedom of expression, movement or activity that can be largely dependent on external circumstances. For most of our history Jews lived under oppressive regimes but always remained inherently free. Even in Soviet Gulags and Nazi concentration camps, the spirit of faith, empathy and care for another managed to flourish because the spirit is always free.

To illustrate the distinction between external liberty and true liberty the Rebbe utilized a fresh story that was rocking the world media at the time.

A week earlier, on April 5, 1976 the world learned about the death of Howard Hughes, an American business magnate, investor and philanthropist, known during his lifetime as one of the most financially successful individuals in the world. His extreme paranoia and eccentric reclusiveness had driven him into hiding and at the time of his death he suffered from malnutrition and was covered in bedsores.

Here was a man who had the ability to do as he wished, yet in his personal life was more confined than an incarcerated prisoner. His freedom of expression, movement and activity was so severely hampered because he did not have the tools to tap into the liberty of the spirit.

My grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg languished in Stalin’s gulags for seven years but stubbornly subsisted on potato peels and sugar cubes for the eight days of Pesach so as not to eat Chometz during the festival. As a teenager in Auschwitz, Shainy’s grandmother, Mrs. Itu Lustig refused her morsel of bread the Nazis gave her on the night of Pesach. “It was my proudest moment in Auschwitz,” she told me with a smile a while back.

Pesach reminds us that we are always free. Even in silly situations like when you get nervous and upset because you are stuck in traffic and feel the minutes and hours of the day slipping from your control you have the choice to make that time meaningful in ways you hadn’t planned on.

As we clear away the Chometz to welcome in the Matzah let us focus on nurturing the spiritual liberty the Matzah represents and fill every moment of our time with bringing more goodness, kindness and inspiration to our world.

What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

That’s a tough question for me and I rarely answer the same answer twice. I know that sounds frighteningly stereotypical, but the message we can learn from this week’s additional Torah reading about the Jewish calendar and Passover - called Parshat Hachodesh - gives me some cover with this. Here’s why.

Two weeks before the Israelites were due to leave Egypt G-d prepared them for freedom by communicating the first batch of Mitzvot to them. First came the detailed instructions of setting up the Jewish calendar followed immediately by the laws of the Passover sacrifice known as the Pascal Lamb.

On the eve of exodus every family slaughtered a lamb, sprinkled the blood on the doorposts of their homes and ate the roasted meat together with Matzah and Maror in anticipation for the imminent redemption. For generations to come the Pascal Lamb would be sacrificed in the Holy Temple and serve as the centerpiece of every Seder table in Jerusalem in celebration of our exodus.

Initially the correlation between the two Mitzvot of the Jewish calendar and the Pascal Lamb seems technical: you can’t calculate the anniversary of exodus without a calendar. But like everything else in Torah there must be a deeper connection between the two and one detail of the Pascal Lamb ritual reveals something profound about the Jewish calendar.

While in Egypt most Israelites had become spiritually enslaved to the overwhelming influence of hedonistic Egyptian culture. The Kabbalists state that 210 years of immersion in the quagmire of Egyptian depravity brought our people to the brink of spiritual doom to the point that remaining there any longer would have been spiritually fatal.

The icon of Egyptian idolatry was the Lamb so G-d instructed the Israelites to disassociate themselves entirely from their heathen ways by slaughtering a lamb as an offering to G-d. But then came the specific instructions of how to prepare the lamb for consumption.

“You shall not eat it rare or boiled in water, except roasted over the fire, its head with its legs and with its innards.” (Exodus 12:9)

Notice the Torah does not simply instruct us to “roast the whole lamb.” It specifies the head, the innards and the legs to emphasize that while there is certainly a distinction between these body parts, when it comes to destroying idolatry and embracing Judaism, every detail is important and relevant.

This approach is true regarding the Jewish calendar as well. Certainly there is a distinction between days such as Shabbat, High Holy Days, Festivals, Rosh Chodesh and regular weekdays, just like there is a big difference between the lamb’s head, innards and feet. But every day must be observed and celebrated as a Jewish day in its unique way.

During the sixteenth century an imprisoned Jew was allowed to practice his religion together with the local community one day each year. He wondered which day to choose and was instructed by one of the great Halachic authorities of the time to utilize the first opportunity to do a Mitzvah that cannot be done in prison since one cannot determine the importance of Mitzvot.

The most important Jewish day is today.

With all that being said, I’m sure you have a favorite Jewish holiday and I’d love to hear about it. Please share your thoughts with me by responding in the comments.

I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Judaism doesn’t rely on market research

 

You are probably reading this message from an iPhone or a smartphone inspired by the iPhone. Finding someone with a “dumb” phone today is rare but I remember when the concept of every human being potentially purchasing and easily handling a hand held device with access to all the knowledge in the world was not even a fantasy.

When conceiving the idea of the smartphone Steve Jobs did not ask customers what they wanted. “People don't know what they want until you show it to them”, he famously said. “That's why I never rely on market research.”

While I’m sure quality research is positive, it’s the real transformative stuff that will never show up in those research results.

In this week’s parsha we learn about the sin of the Golden Calf. The tragic saga of our nation being manipulated into idol worship weeks after experiencing the greatest divine revelation at Sinai. The future of Judaism hung precariously in the balance until Moses heroically elicited G-d’s mercy for the people and then began the long process of atonement for their treachery.

The Torah narrative does not follow a chronological order and the Mitzvah of “Machatzis Hashekel” which served as one of the methods for atonement for the Golden Calf is recorded in the opening verses of the Parsha before the detailed description of that sordid episode.

Each year, every Jew is obligated to contribute a silver half shekel coin to a communal fund to pay for the daily communal sacrifices in the Holy Temple. There were no loopholes or exceptions and the courts were obligated to forcibly extract the half shekel coin from whoever refused to give it.

Moshe was confused by this clause. Seizing the half shekel would make sense if it was a tax, but the Torah defines this annual giving as an “atonement” and not a tax. How could the forced extraction of this donation achieve atonement for a Jew who doesn’t even want to give it?

In response, G-d showed Moshe “a fiery coin taken from beneath His Throne of Glory.” This divine fiery coin represented the essence of the “neshama” - the Jewish soul. G-d showed Moshe that even a Jew who is so spiritually insensitive as to dismiss the opportunity for atonement has a “neshama” in pristine condition. Just get the Mitzvah done and the soul will shine forth through the spiritual fog.

“Jewish market research” is completely unnecessary because there is no need to measure a Jew’s knowledge, commitment or inspiration before offering him or her to do a Mitzvah. Do everything in your power to get the deed done and the soul’s beautiful light and warmth will eventually shine forth with increasing intensity. Because even a simple coin, when used for a Mitzvah, can manifest the fiery passion inherent in every one of us.

 

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