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Rabbis' Blog

Don’t be a visionary

I was recently fishing around for the definition of the word “visionary” and the kindest one I found was “a person of unusually keen foresight.” All the rest described fanciful, fantastical, impractical dreamers.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the unfortunate debacle of Korach’s revolt. More than a year after Moshe led the Israelites out of Egypt and displayed the highest standards of leadership and devotion to them, Korach, a first cousin to Moshe and Aharon and a brilliant and wealthy scholar led a nearly successful insurrection against the establishment.

Agitated by what he felt was an affront to his family’s legacy for being excluded from certain formal leadership positions, he claimed that the appointment of Aharon as High Priest was not divine, rather Moshe’s way of keeping a tight grip on power. The madness only ended after the ground miraculously opened up and swallowed the main nucleus of the rabble rousers, burying them alive.

The classic commentator Rashi asks the following question. It is an established fact that Korach was brilliant and knew very well that Moshe was legitimate. Why did he succumb to the silly temptations of glory and power and put everything on the line to go on a fool’s errand deposing G-d’s chosen leader?

In addition to his many qualities Korach had some prophetic powers and perceived his descendants would include such greats as Samuel the Prophet and many legions of Levites who would sing prophetic hymns in the Holy Temple. He reasoned that the merit of his illustrious descendents earned him glory during his lifetime, and would aid him in his struggle against Moshe.

Rashi concludes that while Korach may have had keen foresight, his vision was blurred, and he was unable to appreciate his prophetic visions in their proper context. Moshe, on the other hand, was not a visionary. He saw the truth for what it was with brilliant clarity, just like we see things in broad daylight.

This Shabbat, the Third of Tammuz (July 2) we observe the 28th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing in 1994. Millions around the world continue to be touched and inspired by the Rebbe’s teachings and the enormous network of Chabad outreach he established and interest in the Rebbe’s life and leadership continues to grow every day.

In a 1956 letter to the then-President of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Zvi the Rebbe shared a personal childhood memory. “From the day I started attending Cheder (traditional Jewish elementary school) I started to imagine in my mind’s eye the future redemption. The redemption of the people of Israel from this final exile; such a redemption and in such a way that the torments of exile, the decrees and annihilations would be understood…”

In his first discourse upon assuming leadership of the Chabad Lubavitch movement and personal responsibility for global Jewry, the Rebbe declared that the divine mandate of our generation is to make redemption a reality. This continued to be a recurring theme in thousands of hours of oral teachings and in hundreds of published volumes. Every initiative and campaign was permeated with the urgency to bring Moshiach and the Rebbe explained it in the clearest terms so we can all understand it and relate to it. He insisted that Maimonides’ declaration that “one good thought, spoken word or action can tip the scales and bring salvation to the entire world” should be understood literally and is the personal responsibility of each and every individual.

The Rebbe was not a visionary. He saw the reality of the imminent redemption and shared it with us, and this clarity rings true today more than ever before. Beyond hoping for a better future let us pay heed to the Rebbe’s assurance that an era of world peace and tranquility is imminent, and only depends on the single mitzvah you and I will do today.

 

Don’t Wait for Inspiration

It’s been a hectic week and I’m not currently home so as I sat down to prepare this message I experienced a case of writer’s block. Nothing was coming to mind until I noticed a note hanging above the desk I’m sitting at that reads: “Don’t waste time waiting for inspiration. Begin, and inspiration will find you.”

It clicked. Not only am I now motivated to start typing, this brilliant piece of advice provides the perfect context for an important lesson we can learn from this week’s parsha.

A year after the Exodus Moshe reluctantly acquiesced to the Israelites' request to scout the land of Israel before conquering it and sent representatives from each tribe on the reconnaissance mission. After giving them detailed instructions of what to look out for and how to analyze the situation he concluded, “You shall be courageous and take from the fruit of the land." Knowing the fruit of Israel was unusually large and delicious, Moshe instructed them to bring back samples of it to show the people what type of land they were inheriting.

When they returned, eight of them carried one huge cluster of grapes and a pomegranate and fig each needed a grown man to carry them. Ten of the spies delivered a scathing report of how conquering the land was impossible and the proposed invasion was a suicidal mission. The huge fruits they had in tow proved the land’s inhabitants were mighty warriors who would surely squash any Israelite efforts to inhabit their land. Devastated, the people revolted and refused to continue.

The fallout from the scandal was severe. The rogue spies died immediately, the rest of that generation died in the desert over a period of forty years, and for thousands of years we continue to reflect on the lessons we can learn from this tragedy. 

Here is an important detail worth analyzing. Why did Moshe instruct the spies to bring back fruits to prove how great the land was if G-d’s promise should be sufficient proof of that?

Moshe knew the Israelites would follow orders and march into the land to conquer it, but not everyone was equally inspired to do so. To blindly trust G-d’s promise demanded a lofty level of divine consciousness which could not be expected of every Jew. Moshe wished to motivate all Jews to approach this mission with excitement and confidence so he instructed the spies to bring back samples of the fruits so that even Jews who were not inspired by the holiness of the mission would be motivated by the material bounty it presented.

Moshe’s reasoning was straightforward: Since every Jew needed to get involved in the mission and there was no time to wait for everyone to be inspired by the holiness of the land, it was crucial to inspire them with less holier motivations.

The plan failed then due to the treachery of the spies, but the lesson is eternal. When it comes to doing a mitzvah don’t waste time waiting for divine inspiration. Do the mitzvah as it should be done, even with ulterior motives, and the divine inspiration will ultimately find you.

 

What’s With the Menorah?

Why is the Menorah the most enduring symbol of Judaism?

When the Jews constructed a divine tabernacle in the desert following their exodus from Egypt, they were instructed to prepare a seven branched candelabra to be lit every day in the chamber adjacent to the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. This observance continued for at least another 1,500 years, with brief pauses, until the destruction of the second Holy Temple.

This week’s parsha opens with G-d’s instructions to Aharon the High Priest to light the Menorah every day. Following the lengthy narrative of last week’s parsha about the inauguration of the tabernacle through the sacrifices offered by the leaders of the twelve tribes, Aharon was distraught that his tribe was not included in the pomp and ceremony of the sacrificial inauguration.

In response G-d assured him the merit of lighting the flames of the Menorah was far superior. Whereas the sacrifices will one day cease due to the destruction of the Holy Temple, the flames of the Menorah will endure forever. Even during exile Jews will continue lighting Menorahs (albeit with eight branches instead of seven) during Chanukah in celebration of the miracle of the oil which occurred with the Holy Temple flames. On a deeper level, the Menorah teaches us how to ensure Jewish continuity through education.

The essential function of a Menorah is a space for a flame to shine. The flame represents the soul, mandated with the mission of bringing divine light and warmth to a materialistically dark and cold universe. But aside from the impact one single flame has on its surroundings through its light and warmth, every flame can create more flames and there are three crucial details about this phenomenon that teach us all we need to know about education. 

When one flame lights another flame the intended purpose is for the new flame to be independent. As long as the original flame needs to touch the wick, the new flame does not really exist. The purpose of education is to create confident and self-sufficient Jews, who in turn can educate and inspire others.

Flames are infinite. There is no limit to how many flames one flame can ignite. As our sages proclaim “you shall educate many students!” There is no quota of how many people you are obligated to inspire and guide in the proper direction. Even if you mentored countless people, always seize the opportunity to educate more.

Finally, the flame is never diminished as a result of sharing its fire with other wicks. No matter how many flames one flame ignites, it never weakens or dims as a result. Educating others can seem to detract from your own personal growth. After all, the time and effort expended on caring for others is less time spent on yourself. Flames teach us that one who focuses on inspiring others never loses out.

The Menorah is the icon of education and education is the secret recipe to Jewish continuity.

 

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

Lately I've been hearing an interesting quote by author Michael Hopf. “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.” I appreciate the quote's appeal, but I'd like to present a rebuttal to this doomsday prediction of hard times to come.

Earlier this week we celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, commemorating the moment we became a nation at Mt. Sinai 3,334 years ago. The newly freed Israelites stood in a barren desert, at the foot of an unremarkable mountain and experienced the most exhilarating, unnatural experience: direct, divine communication.

The first commandment they heard was “I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of Egypt.” It seems odd for this to be the description of choice for the creator of the world. Is not creation more awesome than extracting a few million people from the shackles of Egyptian slavery? Granted, splitting the sea is an amazing feat, but in comparison to engineering that huge body of water it’s just a temporary anomaly.

Here’s the deal. One of the wonders of creation is that it’s programmed with what we call “nature.” The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west and every period of 365 days has four seasons. The world is set in a predictable cycle that we can never control and the same could be said about human nature; after all, hard times have always created strong men and good times have created weak ones.

That’s why the liberation from Egypt plays such a central role in the Sinaitic revelation. The Hebrew name for Egypt is “Mitzrayim” which means boundaries, borders or limitations. G-d did not just release us from the geographical location called Mitzrayim. He released us from all limitations possible; even from the natural, societal cycles of observable history. We have the ability to chart a different destiny, one that consistently leads to stronger and better times.

But how can the surreal and unnatural experience of Sinai be applied in real life? On the Shabbat following Shavuot we read parshat Naso in the Torah which describes the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Less than a year after the exodus, following the revelation at Sinai, G-d commissioned the construction of a divine sanctuary from the finest materials they possessed, illustrating that a relationship with G-d, and creating the best possible future, is not limited to the wilderness. Specifically quality and beautiful material can become elevated, pure and holy when used the right way. Thus good times can create even better times.

The Hebrew word Naso has the double meaning of “counting” and “elevating.” The best way to ensure that good times create strong people who create even better times is by challenging ourselves to view every person and thing as a divine agent for goodness. Every encounter and action counts when we are focused on living up to the liberty G-d granted us so many years ago, to break out of the vicious cycle of life and confidently prepare our world for an era of true peace and tranquility.

 

Joyful Accountability

Serendipity is a wonderful thing, but Judaism maintains that it doesn’t happen by chance rather by divine providence. The convergence of seemingly diverse events is orchestrated by G-d and provides the opportunity for meaningful discovery and growth.

In a letter to a Bar Mitzvah boy the Rebbe notes the correlation between the Giving of the Torah (the content of his Bar Mitzvah parsha “Yisro”) and the young lad’s Bar Mitzvah. At Sinai the Jews first committed to learning the Torah and observing all 613 of its Mitzvot, and every Jewish boy at age 13 and girl at 12 does the same. Just as Pesach is celebrated as the birth of the Jewish nation, Shavuot commemorates our national Bar Mitzvah.

In light of this, the Rebbe asks a simple question. Every weekday following the Amidah prayer there is a section in the prayer book called “Tachnun” containing various confessional prayers. These prayers are part of the overall concept of “Teshuvah” which means repentance or return. It’s not about feeling sorry for yourself and becoming dpressed, but rather the golden opportunity G-d gives us to wipe the slate clean and renew our divine relationship in a stronger and more powerful way than before. Nevertheless, the actual process of Teshuva involves remorse and should be avoided at joyful times.

According to Jewish law, confessional prayers are never recited on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and Jewish festivals (aside for Yom Kippur, of course). This restriction also applies to anyone experiencing a truly joyous occasion in their lives such as a wedding, a son’s bris, the completion of a Torah scroll and other similar occasions. The reasoning is straightforward: during a time of joy one should not focus on personal insufficiencies warranting confession.

Curiously enough, the day one becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah does not make the cut. The newly minted Jewish adult recites the confessional prayers on his or her special day, which begs the question, why? Is the day one commits to a life of divine service guided by the teachings of the Torah not an occasion joyous enough to make the recitation of the confessional prayer inappropriate?

Torah is infinite. True, there are a defined amount of mitzvot and laws governing Jewish life, but our relationship with G-d must constantly grow and evolve. Even if yesterday was perfect, today is expected to be better, since you’ve matured and wisened over the past 24 hours. The daily confessional prayers are about the awareness of the fact that if I’m not living up to G-d’s expectations, I have the opportunity to fix it.

Young Jewish adults recite the confessional prayer on their big day because the initiation into Jewish adulthood is about appreciating our obligation to constantly grow in our Jewishness and if yesterday we did not live up to expectations, Teshuvah reminds us of the ability to fix it. Don’t allow yesterday’s failures to dictate today’s behavior.

This year the Jewish world will study Maimonides’ laws of Teshuvah during the holiday of Shavuot. The annual Maimonides’ study cycle has been running its course for close to forty years now, but the convergence of the Teshuvah study with Shavuot is certainly not incidental. While we certainly don’t recite the confessional prayers on Shavuot and are expected to celebrate with unmitigated joy, I can’t help but note the connection the mitzvah of Teshuvah has with the commemoration of our national Bar Mitzvah on Shavuot. Mazel Tov!

May we merit to receive the Torah anew with joy and inwardness.

Best wishes for a Good Shabbos and Chag Sameach!

 

No Lonely Jew in the Lone Star State

 

Published in the Jewish Herald-Voice celebrating 50 years of Chabad in Texas

In the summer of 2005 I set out on a two-week tour of Southwest Texas with my friend Meir Kopel in search of fellow Jews as part of Chabad’s “Roving Rabbis” summer program. The program was established by the Rebbe in the early 1940s, sending rabbinical students all over the world to connect Jews with our glorious heritage.

Using El Paso as home base, Meir and I eventually arrived in the triangle of West Texas towns Marfa, Alpine, and Fort Davis without knowing what or who we would find. The handful of Jews we discovered were delighted to see us and while driving up the 90 back to the I-10, we listened to a recording of a farbrengen (chassidic gathering) the Rebbe held in the summer of 1971.

In one of the talks the Rebbe defined the ethics of Jewish leadership from an episode that occured with Moses. Before becoming the iconic Israelite leader, Moses worked as a shepherd and one day noticed one scrawny little sheep went missing. He searched high and low until he found it standing next to a stream of water and returned it to the flock. At that moment he noticed the miraculous sight of a thorn bush ablaze without being consumed and as he approached to investigate, G-d spoke with him and sent him on a mission to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. The rest is history.

“This story illustrates how Moses was only granted the mantle of leadership once he displayed a tremendous dedication to even one single, seemingly insignificant, sheep,” the Rebbe explained. “This is what Jewish leadership is all about.”

It was a surreal and memorable experience to hear such a powerful description of the Rebbe’s raison d'être while serving as his emissaries to find “runaway” Jews in the Southwest Texas wilderness in the most tangible way.

On the 11th of Nissan 1972, close to a year after the recording we heard near Marfa, the Rebbe celebrated his 70th birthday and requested that seventy new Chabad institutions be established the following year. Rabbi Shimon and Chiena Lazaroff were dispatched to Texas to establish a permanent Chabad presence a month later. Over the next fifty years Chabad of Texas expanded spectacularly, but the essential mission remains the same: to connect with every individual Jew, regardless where they may run.

Thirty six years ago Rabbi Lazaroff sought to expand the Rebbe's work in the state with a permanent presence in El Paso. The Rebbe sent my parents, Rabbi Yisrael and Chana Greenberg and myself (as a three month old baby) to the western edge of Texas and my wife Shainy and I returned to join the team eleven year ago. To this day, while the big projects are exciting and essential, our proudest moments are the individual encounters and connections that embody the Rebbe’s “Moses-searching-for-the sheep” mission he entrusted to us all.

Here is one example. A woman from a remote Alaskan town called to notify us that her son Mike* had recently moved to El Paso. Over Shabbat dinner my father asked Mike if he knew his brother, Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, the Chabad Rabbi in Anchorage, Alaska who helped him wrap tefillin in honor of his Bar Mitzvah a decade earlier.

Mike admitted that he remembered doing something for his thirteenth birthday but could not recall the details of the ceremony, let alone the name of the officiating Rabbi. My father smiled and said, “You might forget about Judaism, but Judaism does not forget about you.” Months later Mike’s life was saved because, although we had not seen him since that Shabbat dinner, he knew to come to Chabad in a critical moment of need.

In celebration of Texas Chabad’s 50th birthday I invite you to join the team by ensuring that no Jew is ever forgotten or lonely, wherever they may be in the quarter of a million square miles of the Lone Star State.

 

 

Uvalde and me

There is no need for me to describe what happened in Uvalde this week nor how I feel about it because you already know it all. But I'd like to share some ideas I think about in the wake of such man-made tragedies - beyond mourning the victims and feeling solidarity with their loved ones - that may be helpful to others.

Judaism teaches that we must personally grow from everything we see or hear. How can I possibly become a better person after hearing 21 precious souls were gunned down in a school? Part of my instinctive reaction upon hearing about a mass shooting is to profile the perpetrator as someone I have no affiliation with whatsoever. I try to console my insulted and grieved humanity by declaring that such an evildoer was definitely insane and probably not even human. How can it be explained any other way?

Then I catch myself and remember the perpetrator was definitely human and insanity is a weak excuse for evil. So what went wrong? How is it possible for someone to do such horrible things?

Jewish tradition maintains that every person is born with two competing inner forces. One is the instinctive, survival force that motivates me to care for myself and succeed in life. The other force drives me to find meaning and purpose; to achieve goals greater than myself and make a positive impact on society.

Although one force is selfish and the other is selfless, both occupy my psyche and are constantly clashing. Every moral dilemma I face is the manifestation of these two inner forces pulling me in two opposite directions, and I alone must choose which inclination to follow. I cannot be blamed for my inner struggles, but I am certainly responsible for my choices. Most of the time the problem is not discerning right from wrong. More often than not the right choices are the harder ones and I need to choose selflessness over selfishness; divine awareness over self absorption.

In Genesis we learn how humanity started from one single person. The Talmud explains that G-d created one human being in the beginning to illustrate the preciousness of one single life and how important every individual’s choices are.

The consequences of these choices are usually not earth shattering, but the possibility for these inner struggles to morph into serious crises with far reaching consequences is very real. The more I train myself to make the right choices in the small, routine types of struggles, the more prepared I am to make the right choices when life shattering struggles hit hard.

A young man made a horribly selfish and evil choice this week, but I am neither judge nor jury and as a fellow human being I am left with the following questions. Am I making better choices in my personal struggles? Are my personal choices inspiring others to choose right over wrong and good over evil? Am I effectively educating my children to identify these struggles and to appreciate how relevant their choices are to G-d and society?

While I mourn with Uvalde and the relevant agencies find better ways to stop crime in the first place, I must certainly do more to ensure more people make the right choices more often than not and hopefully stop Uvalde from happening again.

 

Education is the key to pride

A few weeks ago I took my eldest children on a hike up the Franklin Mountains. Standing at the beginning of the trail and looking up at the top, one of them wondered if we would make it up there because it seemed so overwhelming. After some initial hesitation we started walking and before we knew it we were at the top.

The opening verse of this week’s parsha states that G-d spoke to Moshe at Mt. Sinai to communicate a host of laws. The mention of Mt. Sinai here seems unnecessary since all the Mitzvot recorded throughout the Torah were all communicated to Moshe at Mt. Sinai. Even more ironic is the fact that while the verse clearly states this communication happened at the famous mountain named Sinai, the name of this week’s parsha is simply “Behar - on the mountain.” Why not include “Sinai” in the parsha’s title?

The two words “mountain” and “Sinai” represent two opposite ideas. Mountains by definition are elevated - connoting pride and overbearance - but the specific mountain named Sinai was not known for its grandeur. Quite the contrary, Sinai was chosen by G-d to host the great revelation of Torah to the Jewish people specifically because it was humble and unassuming - integral character traits necessary to achieving personal spiritual perfection. In light of this it seems odd that a parsha would be named simply “mountain” - which connotes pride - without the important caveat that comes along with the word “Sinai.”

While humility is essential, there comes a time when confidence and pride should take center stage. On the first day of school every student enters feeling like they know nothing, but after studying for a while, fluency and confidence in the subject matter should replace their initial shyness. Retaining a healthy dosage of humility is crucial to being the best at anything you do, but it shouldn’t be the overarching trait of your professionalism. When you know what you're doing, you should be proud of it.

Torah is like a huge, towering mountain and just knowing there are 613 commandments can be overwhelming for anyone standing at the beginning of the trail. Reading the Five Books of Moses leaves one with more questions than answers since the details of most Mitzvot are cryptic to say the least. It makes you feel like a “Sinai Jew.”

But the Torah and all its 613 commandments define us as Jews, so there must be a way for every Jew to know them and own them. There must be a way to graduate from being “Sinai Jews” and become more pronounced “Mountain Jews.”

That’s why Maimonides gifted the Jewish world his Mishneh Torah - the most comprehensive encyclopedia of Jewish law to date - and the Sefer Hamitzvot - a concise counting of all 613 mitzvot. With brilliant clarity he provides every Jew the opportunity to become familiar with every aspect of Jewish law. Even without becoming an authority on Jewish law, Maimonides empowers every Jew to be proud of his or her heritage.

I invite you to join me on a year-long journey in studying the 613 Mitzvot with Maimonides. Register here to receive daily messages of links to a video and audio recording of the daily Maimonides study program I am offering this year, and become familiar with our awesome heritage.

From the smallest to the biggest

In America we have age milestones for many things. There is an age you can vote, marry, purchase alcohol, hold national public office and finally the age you need to be to become president. More close to home, often children wish they could make their own decisions about bedtime, meals and homework and the inevitable truth is that until they grow up we will be making those decisions for them. Until then, kids are just kids. Or are they?

This week’s parsha opens with a peculiar sentence. G-d tells Moshe “Speak to the Kohanim the sons of Aharon, and you shall tell them.” See the redundancy? Torah is typically succinct and brief in its expression. It would have been sufficient to state simply “Speak to the Kohanim.” Why the added “and you shall tell them?”

Before bringing the Talmudic answer to this question, it’s important to appreciate that our sages expressed profound ideas in the brilliant articulation of their sentences. With proper training one can analyze every line of Talmud and extract volumes of interpretations and lessons.

Regarding the above redundancy the sages said four Hebrew words: “Lehazhir hagdolim al haktanim.” The simple explanation of these words is that the purpose of the double expression in this case is “to admonish the adult Kohanim to be responsible for the children,” that they should be careful with the rules too.

In this context, the Hebrew word “Lehazhir” means to warn and admonish, and our sages’ teaching communicates the responsibility of adults to educate the children. However the same word can also mean “to illuminate and brighten,” and when read with this translation, the meaning of our sages’ teachings takes on a new angle: children, through their behavior, illuminate and inspire their elders to do even better.

So Jewish education is a two way street. Knowledge, direction and training comes from the elders, but the inspiration and joy can be best gleaned from the little ones.

Where am I going with all this? In 1984 the Rebbe started an annual campaign for every Jew to study the works of Maimonides - Mishneh Torah: a 14 volume comprehensive treatise on Jewish law in clear and concise language - a must read for every Jew. In fact, Maimonides clearly states in his introduction that this work is written in a way that should be understandable to the smallest and the biggest. The Torah novice, even a child, can appreciate it and the greatest scholar will never tire to uncover more nuance and depth in it. In addition Maimonides wrote a shorter work Sefer Hamitzvot detailing the basic ideas of all 613 mitzvot.

The Rebbe set forth a study cycle of Maimonides that included everyone, from the greatest scholars to the smallest children.

The annual Maimonides learning cycle begins this Thursday, May 19 (Lag B’omer). I encourage you to visit chabadelpaso.com/rambam to learn more about this special study opportunity and find which track works best for you. Tap into a study system that blends the experience of the elders and the inspiration and passion of the children.

 

Fulfilling Life’s Purpose

In the winter of 1986 a Jew living in Brooklyn was going through a serious family crisis. A friend suggested he seek advice from the Rebbe but at the time there were no official opportunities for people to interact privately with the Rebbe in person. While written correspondence was certainly an option he felt unable to adequately articulate the nuances of his problem in writing. Although this was not the standard procedure, his friend felt the problem was urgent enough to suggest that he approach the Rebbe outside his home in the morning on his way to “770” Lubavitch World Headquarters. No one would be within earshot and it would be the perfect opportunity.

Heeding his friend’s well intentioned advice, he made the short trip to Crown Heights and as the Rebbe walked toward the waiting car approached and quickly shared his dilemma. The Rebbe stopped, asked some questions and then advised and counseled him until he continued on his way - 10 minutes later!

A group of yeshiva students witnessed the entire exchange from afar and were horrified at this man’s audacity. The Rebbe’s time was extremely precious and to “hold him up” at such an unofficial venue for such a long time was unheard of. When one of them told off the fellow for his breach of protocol he felt terrible and rushed to write a letter to the Rebbe apologizing for his inappropriate use of the Rebbe’s time.

I will paraphrase the Rebbe's written response: The Baal Shem Tov taught that a soul can be sent down to this world to live 70-80 years just in order to do a single favor to another person. “It’s possible that the purpose of my entire life is in order to help you out in your current crisis. Why is this student interfering in my soul’s business?”

In this week’s parsha the Torah states “You shall love your fellow as yourself!” Rabbi Akiva declared this mitzvah is a fundamental or all-inclusive principle of the Torah and the great Hillel before him went further to say that all of Torah is a commentary on this mitzvah. Just as we prioritize our own needs above all else, we must care for another’s material and spiritual needs with the same passion and attention. 

Practically speaking, we will never know which specific favor is the purpose of our soul’s journey in this world. That’s why we need to utilize every opportunity that comes our way. A sage once asked someone running in the marketplace where he was rushing. “To make a living!” the man breathlessly replied. “How do you know your success will come to you in that direction, perhaps you are running away from your source of success which is the opposite direction?”

Even when rushing to keep up with the constant demands of life, be sensitive to your surroundings and make time to interact and help those you encounter who may not be on your official schedule. Who knows? Perhaps they hold the key to your purpose in life.

Fighting Darkness G-d's Way

In the beginning of G-d’s creation of Heaven and Earth, the earth was desolate and dark, and the divine spirit hovered above the waters. And G-d said “Let there be light, and there was light.”

Darkness is not new. It’s been part of our world’s narrative from the very beginning - and the first recorded divine action in the Torah is the fact that G-d created light.

Light and darkness are not two opposites of the same realm. If they were of the same kind, logic would dictate that one would need an equal amount of one to cancel out the other. But everyone knows this is not true. In a vast space filled with utter darkness one needs to only shine a single light and much of it will go away.

Light and dark are metaphors for good and evil and the opening narrative of our Torah teaches us all we need to know about battling every type of darkness. Identifying it is a start but fighting it on its terms is futile. The only way to banish darkness is G-d’s way, by introducing light.

A great sage once offered the following analogy. Three men were imprisoned in a dungeon and food was thrown down to them from the opening on top. In the pitch-black darkness it was very difficult to eat the food. Two of them managed to work it out while the third, no matter how hard he tried, could not find a way to eat. He sat and wailed from hunger while one of his fellow prisoners worked unsuccessfully to help him out. After a while he called out to the third prisoner and asked why he wasn’t helping their poor friend learn how to eat in the darkness to which he responded, “Fool, I’m trying to find a way out of this place!”

In the intended lesson both of them were wrong. Learning to live with the darkness is defeatist and trying to escape the inescapable is unrealistic. Bringing light into the darkness is the way to go.

The opening words of this week’s parsha reference the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two eldest sons of Aharon the High Priest. During the inauguration of the Tabernacle these lofty and sensitive souls were so overwhelmed by the divine revelation, their souls expired from their bodies. G-d warned Aharon and the rest of us that the saintly Nadav and Avihu are not to be emulated.

Although their deaths resulted from their overwhelming desire to be holy through escaping the coarse mundaneness of the physical world, G-d wants us to become holy through illuminating the dark world by introducing more light, not by escaping from it.

This happens when we do Mitzvot in this physical world. As Maimonides famously declared, every individual must view the world as equally balanced between good and evil. One single positive action, one positive spoken word and even a good thought can tip the balance and bring salvation to the world with the arrival of Moshiach who will rid our world of the age-old darkness of hatred, jealousy and apathy and usher in an era of global peace and tranquility for all.

 

The Moses Trait We Can All Adopt

 Rebbe - Charity 2.jpeg

In Jewish culture the traditional birthday wish is “till 120!” The famous Jewish leader Moses lived to be exactly 120 years old and his accomplishments and legacy indicate that when we wish each other the best in life, we intend for our lives to be meaningful and impactful as well.

In modern times, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson is my ultimate example of a Moses persona, and Tuesday, April 12 will mark his 120th birthday. I find the similarities between these two great leaders striking.

Just as Moses was a master teacher, the Rebbe educated generations of disciples to understand Jewish tradition, life and the ways of the world with profound depth. Like Moses who shepherded a nation during a difficult transformational period by caring for their every need, the Rebbe assumed personal responsibility for the global Jewish community within a decade of the most traumatic and destructive events in Jewish history. But there is one specific episode I believe frames Moses’ leadership and enlightens a unique aspect of the Rebbe’s life work, which in turn can empower each one of us to be somewhat like Moses.

Prior to becoming the Israelite leader Moses worked as a shepherd and one day noticed one scrawny little sheep went missing. He searched high and low until he found it standing next to a stream of water and returned it to the flock. At that moment he noticed the miraculous sight of a thorn bush ablaze without being consumed and as he approached to investigate, G-d spoke with him and sent him on a mission to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. The rest is history.

This story illustrates how Moses was only granted the mantle of leadership once he displayed a tremendous dedication to even one single, seemingly insignificant, sheep. Making decisions based on the benefit of the majority has its place, but the core of leadership must be the appreciation that every individual is an entire universe. No one is extra and no one is dispensable.

As an ardent student of the Rebbe’s teachings and the history of his life I find this to be a recurring theme. He taught that every individual has an inherent spark of goodness which can and should be nurtured. Everything in this world has a divine purpose to be valued and respected. And most importantly, we all have an integral role to play in making our world a more peaceful and better place.

His focus on education was legendary. Beyond establishing numerous educational institutions all over the world, with his own behavior the Rebbe personified the consummate educator by engaging even the smallest children to do good. Before entering the synagogue for prayer services or walking down the street he would hand coins to children within reach for them to place into the nearby charity box, empowering them to do an act of kindness.

Education is not about preparing legions of potential participants in the workforce, the Rebbe insisted. Rather the essential and thrilling mission of empowering every individual child to live a life of purpose and higher meaning, with an awareness of his or her accountability to G-d and society. To have the necessary tools to navigate the often difficult moral dilemmas he or she will inevitably encounter, and to make the right choices.

This is why America observes Education and Sharing Day each year on the Rebbe’s birthday (four days before Passover) and I am so grateful El Paso’s leadership participated by issuing proclamations dedicating April 12 as Education and Sharing Day. It is a day for us to reflect on how we can be a bit like Moses and care for the spiritual and moral welfare of even one single child. To cherish and value even one single good action, knowing that goodness breeds more goodness and our accumulated good deeds will usher in an era of global peace and tranquility.

The Birth Paradox

This Shabbat coincides with Rosh Chodesh (first day of the Jewish month) Nissan and during synagogue services we will read from three Torahs! In the first we read the weekly parsha of Tazria (from the Book of Leviticus), in the second we read about the sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple in honor of Rosh Chodesh (from the Book of Numbers) and the final reading known as “Hachodesh'' (from the Book of Exodus) establishes the mechanics of the Jewish calendar and contains instructions about the Paschal Lamb and the observance of Pesach. We read about it this week to prepare for the upcoming festival of Pesach.

Although each one of these three portions are in different books and read this week for independent reasons, G-d’s perfect world doesn’t tolerate randomness and there is certainly a common message between them.

One commonality I find in all three is the idea of birth. Parshat Tazria opens with the laws of childbirth, a Jewish new month begins with the “birth” of the new moon, and “Hachodesh” contains the laws of the Jewish calendar anchored on the monthly “moon births” as well as the preparations for, and the annual commemorations of, the Israelite exodus from Egypt referred to by the prophet Ezekiel as the birth of the Jewish nation.

Birth is a paradox because it’s so miraculous (an experienced doctor once expressed to me we know almost nothing about how it works) and yet so common and natural, and it’s uniquely joyful as well as unfathomably painful - so I am told. And like birth, the Jewish calendar and the redemption from Egypt we celebrate on Pesach contain the same paradoxes.

The Jewish calendar is paradoxically characterized by the lunar months and uniquely anchored by the seasons of the solar year. The moon’s fluctuating brightness can be compared to unpredictable miracles and the consistent brightness of the sun represents the eternal stability of nature. The twilight zone after the moon wanes into oblivion produces a painful darkness supplanted by the joy of its “birth” as the slender crescent emerges into view.

The redemption from Egypt was paradoxically miraculous to the extreme and at the same time introduced an eternal and predictable freedom forever embedded in our nature. Whereas the joy of redemption was immeasurable, it was preceded by unprecedented oppression and torture.

So where does this leave us? Our identity as Jews is characterized by the paradox of birth. We are mandated and empowered to elevate and inspire the mechanical tediousness of nature with the miraculous transcendence of divinity. Every nugget of Torah we study and every mitzvah we do introduces another flash of light into the darkness of our mundane world.

And although the going is rough and excruciatingly dark, be encouraged by the knowledge that just as labor pains are naturally followed by the exhilarating joy of new life, our current reality is temporary and the joy of the ultimate redemption through Moshiach is imminent, when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Too busy to notice miracles

Hands-on experience is critical to mastering any trade. A medical student will never go straight from the classroom into the operating room as the lead surgeon without observing and training in hundreds of surgeries. An engineering student will never build a bridge based solely on the information he or she learned in the textbook and you will never get a driver’s license just by memorizing the DMV driving manual without getting behind the wheel.

In this week’s parsha the Torah enumerates the permitted and prohibited animals, birds, fish and grasshoppers (you read that correctly) for kosher consumption. For most species, a specific set of signs were designated as indicators of their kosher status while others are identified by name. The list is long and detailed including exotic species from distant lands the Israelites had never seen before.

As all other Torah laws, G-d communicated them to Moshe in the desert and he in turn immediately shared the information with the nation. The Torah records Moshe’s opening words to the kosher lesson “This is the living creature you may eat…” Our sages explain that Moshe did not merely enumerate a laundry list for them to memorize, he held up every single animal specimen in the world and announced “this is kosher” or “this is not kosher.” The same thing happened with every bird, fish, grasshopper and insect.

What you just read sounds like a profound lesson in education but what has gone unnoticed for thousands of years is the fact that this hands-on kosher lesson was perhaps the greatest miracle to ever happen in history! How did Moshe get his hands on a specimen of every animate being - including fish - in the desert? This phenomenon outshines all the miracles of exodus by far!

The fact that there is no emphasis on the awesomeness of this epic miracle in all of Torah literature is even more mind boggling. But in truth, this itself teaches us a profound lesson about Torah and Torah study.

Axiomatic to Jewish belief is the idea that the Torah is the blueprint of creation and its study and implementation is the purpose of creation. It follows that when the Jews needed to learn a Torah topic that necessitated intimate knowledge of even the most exotic animate species, it was a given that nature would deliver these specimens to them even in the desert. Furthermore, the Jews were too busy absorbing the Torah information, they could not be distracted by marveling at the miracle occurring in front of their eyes. They had to get it right and too much was hanging in the balance.

This illustrates the importance of Torah study and how seriously we should take it. Set aside time to learn some Torah every day. Make that time sacrosanct where nothing can distract you because it’s the foundation of Jewish living.

 

Cleaning Dishes

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Chiya lived in Israel during the difficult period following the destruction of the Second Holy Temple. At the time most Jewish towns could not afford to provide a basic Jewish education for their children and the future of Torah scholarship nationwide was in danger of extinction.

Here is what Rabbi Chiya did to single handedly reverse this frightening course. He planted flax, spun nets to hunt deer which he slaughtered, donated their meat to the poor and prepared parchment from the hides to write five separate books of the Torah. He then traveled to a remote town, gave the five scrolls to five separate children, taught each one how to read and understand them and taught six children the six orders of the Mishna. He instructed each one to share their knowledge with the rest of the children in town and thus provided educational opportunities for thousands and ensured the legacy of Judaism survived that terrible era.

Did the venerable sage need to personally plant the flax, spin the nets, hunt the deer and produce the parchment all by himself? Could he not have contracted out all the “dirty work” to others and get involved specifically where his expertise as a world class scholar were needed?

In this week’s parsha we learn of the first service performed in the Holy Temple every day. All night sacrifices burned on the altar and each morning a Kohen was tasked with ascending the altar and shoveling off a ceremonial shovel of ashes. When the pile of ashes became very large they removed it to the outskirts of the city. Regarding this, the Torah states “He shall then take off his garments and put on other garments, and he shall take out the ashes to a clean place outside the camp.”

So there were two distinct services done with the ashes. The daily early morning removal of a small amount which was done in full ceremonial regalia, and then the periodic full scale removal of the entire pile which was done in an older, less impressive looking uniform.

The rationale for changing clothing while removing the whole pile of ashes is to not soil the officiating garments. After all, a royal butler would not wear the same uniform when serving the king and cooking dinner in the kitchen.

However, one can argue that the same person doesn’t need to do both the task of cooking dinner and serving the king in the royal ballroom. Why did the same Kohen perform both the early morning ceremonial shovel full removal as well as the more labor intensive full scale ash removal? Because when it comes to serving G-d, every aspect of divine service is special and one should not prioritize the fancy looking ceremonial elements over the simpler tougher chores that need to get done.

Rabbi Chiya valued the tough labor necessary to prepare the scrolls as much as he valued the high-quality study time he had with the children, and that’s how he saved Judaism. Don’t just show up to the Shabbos table when it’s time to light the candles or recite the kiddush. Cherish the nitty-gritty preparations necessary to make it all happen. Because in our relationship with G-d, “cleaning the dishes” is as valuable as “presenting the bouquet of roses.”

 

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