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Rabbis' Blog

The first Jewish fundraising campaign in history

One of the first rules in fundraising is to articulate the cause before asking donors to participate. Which makes the opening verses of this week’s parsha quite perplexing. “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper…”

Only after identifying all the materials being raised in this fundraiser, G-d explains the purpose of it all: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.”

Would it not make more sense to begin the divine communication with a command to build a sanctuary and then continue with an appeal for donations?

Our sages teach us that Moshe, the first leader of the Jewish people, was the most perfect human being to ever live, in both physical and spiritual matters. He had tremendous wisdom and sensitivity as well as physical strength and beauty. In addition to all that, he was extremely wealthy.

It was possible, that when G-d instructed the Jews to construct the Sanctuary in the desert Moshe would insist on paying for the entire project on his own. Although it would be a tremendous merit and honor for Moshe to be the sole benefactor of G-d’s Holy Sanctuary, it would miss the entire point of the project. This was meant to be a community effort. G-d wanted every Jew to have a monetary stake in it.

Therefore, even before introducing the cause, G-d said “take a donation from every Jew.” Some will be able to give gold, others silver while others will only manage copper, but everyone must be represented. From then on, whenever the Jewish nation needed to embark on a mission to bring G-d’s presence into the world, everyone’s participation was necessary and encouraged.

Thank G-d, our mini “Holy Sanctuary” in El Paso is truly a community project and we are so grateful to the entire community for supporting Chabad and enabling us to continue pursuing the mission of bringing our glorious heritage to every Jew in the El Paso area.

Children are our future, and children need to play!

For over 20 years children attending Chabad's various programs and activities have been playing on the current playground behind the school area, and - thankfully! - the wear and tear is showing. The time has come to expand the playground area, replace the turf, and purchase and install brand-new play equipment.

Thanks to a group of 8 donors, on Sunday, February 18 at 10:00am we will be launching a special online campaign to raise $120,000 for the brand-new playground.

Every dollar you donate between Sunday, February 18 and Friday, February 23 to this campaign will be matched by this group of eight.

Please consider donating generously and help us provide our children with the perfect outdoor space to develop and grow in a nurturing, safe, fun, and loving environment. (You may also set up a payment plan.) Here is the link to the special Playground Campaign web page: chabadelpaso.com/play

Playground announcement.jpg 

We Must Always Be Happy

It is a Mitzvah to be happy.

That’s right. Just as we are commanded to keep the Kosher diet, light Shabbat candles, wrap Tefillin, and observe many other mitzvot, we are obligated to be happy all the time. Which begs the question, how is that even possible? Happiness is a mood and moods can heavily depend on circumstances that are often out of our control. Are we meant to ignore reality in order to keep our happiness barometer in check?

This Shabbat will be the first day of the month of Adar, the month in which we celebrate the epic holiday of Purim, commemorating our salvation from Haman’s genocidal plot approximately 2,500 years ago. Due to the unique machinations of the Jewish calendar, this year we will have two months of Adar. (Purim is celebrated in the second Adar, this year on March 23-24). In the context of Jewish celebrations and holidays, Purim is placed on the highest pedestal, as evidenced by the fact that the one-day celebration transforms the entire Adar into a joyous month.

In order to appreciate how the joy of Adar works without ignoring reality, we must preface that in Judaism we unfortunately have times of sadness and mourning. Tisha B’Av - the ninth day of the month of Av - is an intense fast day commemorating the destruction of both Holy Temples as well as several other national calamities we have never recovered from yet.

In the Talmudic tractate of Taanit which delineates the laws of communal fasting and supplication in times of drought, plague, or tragedy we find the following instruction: Just as when the month of Av begins one decreases rejoicing, so too when the month of Adar begins, one increases rejoicing.

On the surface this line is puzzling. If the Talmud wished to communicate that the month of Adar must be extra joyous, linking it to the sadness of Av and its tragedies is a real damper. Perhaps the Talmud could have simply written in the tractate Megillah, which deals with the laws of Purim and the story of our salvation from Haman, “When the month of Adar begins, increase in rejoicing.” 

When we appreciate how G-d, the creator of the universe, is in control of everything that happens and has our best interest in mind, it is possible to be truly happy - all the time. Because even the greatest tragedy is somehow integral to a grand master plan that will lead to the best results. Although we often don’t understand how it works, knowing that Divine Providence is at work allows us to keep our spirits high. 

Through the placement of the instruction about increasing joy during Adar and its literary syntax our sages teach us that joy in life is not limited to circumstances that are clearly joyful. They linked the increased joy we should experience in Adar because of our historic salvation to the decreased joy we experience in Av because of our historic tragedies, to express that even the most tragic of circumstances can and will one day be understood in a joyful context. And by investing tremendous effort to “increase in joy during the month of Adar” we set the stage for the month of Av with its historic tragedies and all other sad circumstances in our lives to be transformed into joyful moments, through the arrival of Moshiach, and the blessed era of redemption when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

 

Don’t Get Distracted

“Why doesn’t G-d speak to us nowadays?” I’m asked from time to time. Wouldn’t Torah learning and Mitzvah observance be much easier if we had direct divine communication? While I appreciate the sentiment of the question, the fact is G-d once spoke to us directly and we promptly demanded it never happen again. In this week’s Torah portion, we learn how this specific drama went down.

When the Israelites reached Mount Sinai after the miraculous exodus from Egyptian slavery 3336 years ago, Moshe prepared them for an important known as “Matan Torah - the Gifting of the Torah.” One of the main reasons for this event was to consolidate Moshe’s legitimacy in our eyes as G-d’s prophet. Approximately a year earlier, Moshe had his first divine communication at the burning bush. G-d instructed him to lead the Jews out of Egypt and serve as the conduit for the communication of the Torah and all the Mitzvot. He would perform many miracles to prove he was a real prophet and not a charlatan, but Moshe hesitated.

As Maimonides explains: Moshe, our teacher, knew that one who believes [in another person] because of signs has apprehension in his heart; he has doubts and suspicions. Therefore, he sought to be released from the mission, saying: "They will not believe me" [Exodus 4:1], until the Holy One, blessed be He, informed him that these wonders [were intended only as a temporary measure,] until they left Egypt. After they would leave, they would stand on this mountain (Sinai) and all doubts which they had about him would be removed. 

Realizing they would hear G-d speak to Moshe, the Jews requested G-d speak directly to them and that is what happened. At the appointed time, the Jews gathered around the mountain, and in a dazzling display of thunder, lightning, fire, and smoke G-d’s thundering voice was heard by the masses communicating the Ten Commandments. This is what happened next.

(Exodus 20:15-16) And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar. They said to Moshe, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die."

Hearing G-d directly might sound exciting and exotic but it’s an experience that robs one of any relationship with the material and physical world, a relationship crucial to accomplishing the purpose of creation in the first place. G-d wants humans of flesh and blood, anchored by the inadequacies and deficiencies of materialism forever challenged with moral dilemmas to be the agents to refine and uplift this world. So our lack of direct divine communication is not a bug in the system, it is a major feature of the system. Seeking exotic and otherworldly experiences is a distraction.

Once we’ve confirmed our prophets deliver real divine messages we can continue living in this mundane and lowly world and confidently go about the tremendous task of making it a better place in accordance with Torah's specific and detailed instructions. This is the true gift of the Torah.

 

 

Get the Inside Scoop

A university student once asked the Rebbe about the many wonder stories told about him. “I hear you know better than the doctor whether the patient should have surgery, you know better than the lawyer how to proceed with a case. Do you really know more about medicine than the doctors or about the law than the lawyers?”

The Rebbe replied with the following analogy. When the architect draws up a blueprint for a building, a contractor hires all the relevant professionals and then instructs the plumber where to install the plumbing, the electricians where to run all the wires etc. Even if the contractor is not a plumber by trade or never ran electrical wires in his life, he is uniquely qualified to instruct the specialists because he knows how to read the blueprint.

“When G-d created the world,” the Rebbe continued, “He used the Torah as a blueprint for creation. One who knows how to properly learn the Torah as the blueprint of creation is capable of instructing the specialists in their specialty.” Watch a retelling of this story here.

Approximately two months ago I was privileged to complete studying the 33-volume set of the Rebbe's letters that have thus far been published. For over 50 years the Rebbe corresponded with tens of thousands of people from the entire spectrum of humanity, advising people from every age and stage on every aspect of life. It is impossible to categorize these letters in any specific genre and the brilliance of the Rebbe’s advice is astounding.

In this week’s parsha we learn that when the Israelites were thirsting for water or desperate food they turned to Moshe for advice and counsel. The saintly man who served as the prophet to deliver the Torah to the world was also the address for all regular and mundane life matters. Similarly, the Rebbe did not exclusively deal with major academic questions or global communal matters, he guided anyone even in the most simplest of life issues.

However, the Rebbe did not set in motion the publication of his vast correspondence to impress anyone. He gifted us the ability to read the blueprint of creation - the Torah - as he does and apply the advice he gave to individuals or communities decades ago to the real-life questions and dilemmas you and I face here and now.

Learning the vast collection was such an illuminating and enriching experience. I am therefore thrilled that the Jewish Learning Institute just released a brand new course entitled "Advice for Life" which unpacks this treasure trove of teachings and makes it available to all.

Starting Tuesday, January 30 I will be teaching this 6-week course at Chabad and on Zoom, and I hope you can join me in this incredible journey. 

Time: Tuesdays (Jan. 30 - March 5) 7:30-8:45pm

Please visit chabadelpaso.com/AFL to learn more about the course and please register at chabadelpaso.com/JLI

 

Please Make A Bracha for Bracha

This week was very difficult for our family and we are so grateful to our many friends and family for the outpouring of support as my sister and her family sat Shiva for the passing of their baby daughter Bracha obm. When I arrived at their home in Philadelphia which also serves as the Chabad Center serving Drexel University, I was impressed by the diverse crowds of students, alumni, parents and many others who continued streaming in to share their condolences.

In keeping with the theme of their operations on campus, hospitality played a major role in the weeklong Shiva. Throughout the day, a huge spread was laid out on the island counter of the large kitchen and everyone was encouraged to “make a bracha for Bracha.” My niece’s name Bracha means blessing, and while she was never able to articulate the words during the six months of her life, her parents wanted everyone to use the opportunity of their visit to recite blessings before eating some food as a tribute to the memory of our dearest Bracha.

This Shabbat marks 73 years since the Rebbe delivered his first inaugural Chassidic discourse on the 10th of Shvat 1951. It was a powerful inaugural address that set the tone for the Chabad community reeling from the devastation of the Holocaust and Stalinist persecution, setting it on the path to becoming the largest Jewish movement in the world.

During the 40-minute discourse, the Rebbe elaborated on the idea that the revolutionary divine revelation that occurred at Sinai with the Giving of the Torah was the result of seven generations of devotion and service. Although Moshe served as the prophet to deliver the Torah to us and usher in an era of permanent divine presence in our world through the construction of the Holy Tabernacle, his ability to do so was because he was the seventh generation from our first patriarch Avraham - the first person that made it his business to bring the awareness of G-d to all humanity.

For two thousand years humanity had spiraled into a state of idolatry and abject immorality until one couple named Avraham and Sara had the courage to buck the trend and spread the word about G-d, Creator of heaven and earth. They ingeniously set up a hospitality tent in the middle of the desert at the crossroads of civilization. Every traveler was welcomed in and served a feast fit for royalty. When the satisfied guests sought to express their gratitude to their hosts, Avraham and Sara firmly demanded they thank G-d instead of them. When the heathens refused to acknowledge the existence of an omnipotent and omnipresent G-d, they were threatened with a huge bill until they ultimately agreed to say the required blessings.

The millions of blessings recited in Avraham’s hospitality tent set the stage for the divine revolution that followed at Sinai, in the Tabernacle and in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. A revolution that is still underway until the ultimate redemption through Moshiach when every human being and every creation will be permeated with this knowledge as well. And in this historic discourse, the Rebbe declared our generation would make this a reality, through reaching out to every human being and sharing the message of Torah’s divine morality for all.

So the next time you eat some food, please “make a bracha for Bracha.” Discover the appropriate blessings for different types of foods and beverages and recite them regularly and join the millions preparing the world for the blessed era of Moshiach when all pain, grief and anguish will cease forever.

 

Questions Shouldn’t Scare You

Last week I had the pleasure of spending Shabbat with cousins in Austin as part of our family winter vacation get-away. Rabbi Mendy and Mussie Levertov of the Chabad Young Professionals there hosted over 130 young men and women in their home for Shabbat dinner, and towards the end, a small group stayed for some fascinating discussions.

One of the participants asked “What is G-d?” and I pointed him to the definition articulated in the opening words of Maimonides’ Mishne Torah. (Read it here.) Another fellow sitting at the table exclaimed “Thank you for asking the question! I was always so scared to broach the topic.”

People think it is sacrilegious to have questions, especially about G-d, and to voice them would be an outright insult to the rabbi! Setting aside the rabbi’s feelings, many are concerned that these questions perhaps indicate they have no faith. After all, a true believer would never have any questions.

Wrong.

This week’s parsha opens in the middle of a conversation between G-d and Moshe, the first leader and redeemer of the Jewish people. After he had approached Pharaoh with G-d’s message “Let My people go so they may serve Me” the result was an unbearable increase in their suffering to the point that Moshe himself complained to G-d: "O L-rd! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people."

That’s correct. Moshe, the greatest prophet to ever live and the one credited for transmitting G-d’s Torah to us for all time had questions, and he asked them. Instead of being angered or disappointed with his questions, G-d responded by communicating the greatest blessings and promises for redemption which materialized shortly thereafter.

Questions are not a challenge to faith. On the contrary, questions are the greatest confirmation of faith.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Noble Laureate Elie Wiesel wrestled with faith and even considered never starting a family. Why bring children into such a terrible world, he wondered. He had several lengthy conversations with the Rebbe of which we have no written record, but in 1965 the Rebbe composed a letter to him on the topic of faith after the Holocaust and specifically persuaded him to start a family. Here is a powerful excerpt:

“I believe you will agree with me that it isn’t happenstance that all of the authentic questioners kept their faith; indeed, it is impossible for it to have been otherwise. For if the question is sincerely meant and arises from a genuine concern for justice and righteousness, then it is obvious that such a deep feeling can only come from the conviction that true justice and righteousness must originate in a supernatural source, one that is above human understanding and feelings.”

Read the full letter here.

Don’t be frightened by your questions. Search for answers in the right places and the journey will lead you to true personal redemption, which paves the way for the ultimate redemption through Moshiach.

 

Moses’ First Move

This week we learn about the birth of the most important biblical character Moses. His traditional title is Moshe Rabbeinu which means “Moses our Teacher” and every detail of his life recorded in the Torah is relevant to us all, everywhere and in all times.

The circumstances of his birth were remarkable. His father Amram was the Israelite leader in Egypt and was so revered by his millions of brethren that they followed his example and instructions unquestioningly. When Pharaoh decreed every Jewish newborn boy be killed and Amram divorced his wife to stop having children, every Jew in Egypt followed his lead. When he remarried his wife because his daughter Miriam admonished him and prophetically foretold the birth of the redeemer, every Jew remarried as well and Moshe was born soon afterward.

Although he was named by his parents at birth, he got his famous name Moshe three months later. When his parents were forced to set him sailing in a basket in the Nile River to protect him from Pharaoh’s vile henchmen, Batya, the Egyptian princess noticed the basket as she bathed in the Nile, rescued the vulnerable baby and called him Moshe.

In a fascinating turn of events, Moshe was returned to his family until he was finished nursing. His mother delayed weaning him as much as possible and, according to some accounts, Moshe was closer to seven or eight years old when he was adopted by his benefactor Batya. By then the brilliant child was already trained in the intricacies of Torah study, capable of delving into the depths of Monotheism on his own, and was never distracted by the hedonistic lifestyle of Egyptian royalty.

When he reached maturity he was given the royal mandate to run matters of state. On his first day on the job he intentionally visited the work sites where his brethren were enslaved in the most inhumane fashion to see how they were doing. He noticed an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly beating a Jewish slave to an inch of his life, killed the vile man, and buried him in the sand. This heroic act almost cost Moshe his life and through a series of miracles, he narrowly escaped the executioner's sword and fled from Egypt only to return as G-d’s messenger approximately sixty years later.

The Israelite slave Moshe saved from the taskmaster’s whip was from the “Jewish riffraff” and the entire altercation was the result of immoral behavior in the family. Nevertheless, even though Moshe had until then lived a sheltered life of spiritual and material bliss when the opportunity to help his fellow Jews presented itself, he risked his life even for one who had the worst reputation.

This is the profile of a true Jewish leader and a lesson to all. Notwithstanding one’s personal spiritual achievements or social status, when moral darkness or ethical corruption threatens even the most vulnerable Jew, we must be ready to risk it all to protect and preserve their connection to Judaism.

 

Keep up the prayers

Since the beginning of the current war in Gaza numerous miracles were reported in the mainstream media or have gone viral on social media by the soldiers themselves or their relatives and friends. Here is a story I read earlier this week.

One late afternoon a group of Israeli soldiers operating in Northern Gaza finished securing an area and took a short rest. One of them decided to pray Mincha (the afternoon service) during the brief lull in fighting and stood up to face Jerusalem while the others sat facing the opposite direction. While praying he saw a terrorist jump out of a nearby tunnel they had not uncovered during their mission and aim an RPG (Rocket-propelled grenade) at the group. Firing his weapon, he alerted his comrades and the terrorist was killed within seconds. Thank G-d, their entire group was saved.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the final meeting between Yaakov and his twelve sons, the heads of the tribes of Israel. He blessed each one of them in accordance with their personal history, their children’s respective destinies and their tribes’ divine mission in the broader context of Judaism. Sprinkled throughout the blessings, there are prophetic references to Jewish warriors who would wage battle against Israel’s enemies such as King David, Barak and Devorah the Prophetess as well as the mighty Samson.

In the middle of all this, Yaakov declared (Genesis 49:18), “For Your salvation, I hope, O L-rd!” While it is crucial to courageously wage war with weapons and military tactics and the Jewish nation would produce impressive leaders and warriors, their victories would ultimately depend on G-d’s blessings.

This is true regarding everything in life. Our sages make the following observation about the Jewish attitude to farming. Nature dictates that if you plant a seed in the ground and care for it properly it will grow into a tree and produce many more fruits. Therefore, taking a seed and burying it the ground to decay is considered a logical thing to do because it will grow into something far greater and more beneficial to all.

However, Jews take perfectly good seeds and plant them in the ground because they have faith in G-d that they will grow into trees and produce many fruits. They offer a prayer before heading out to the field and gives thanks to G-d when they reap the fruits of their hard labor because there is no guarantee the seed will actually grow. Certainly without planting the seed nothing will grow, but we appreciate that our connection to G-d and securing G-d’s blessings is the real key to our agricultural success.

 

Forced Into Unity

When the delegates of the Continental Congress declared their independence from the British establishing the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin allegedly said “We must hang together or surely we shall hang separately.”

This anecdote brings to mind an important lesson we can learn from today’s fast day “Asarah B’Teves” (the Tenth of Teves) which commemorates the siege of Jerusalem in the year 425 BCE by the armies of the Babylonian empire. This siege eventually led to the destruction of the First Holy Temple and the first major Jewish exile from Israel two years later on “Tisha B’Av” (the Ninth of Av).

Whereas Tisha B’Av is observed as a major 25-hour fast day of mourning and Asarah B’Teves is observed as a seemingly minor fast day from dawn until nightfall, an obscure rule makes today’s fast quite major. When Tisha B’Av (or other fast days aside for Yom Kippur) occurs on Shabbat the fast is postponed to Sunday, but if Asarah B’Teves would occur on Shabbat it would not be postponed, like Yom Kippur! The current setup of the Jewish calendar ensures this can never happen, but in its original format (which was discontinued about 1,600 years ago) it was certainly a possibility.

The Asarah B’Teves fast is so intense because it commemorates the beginning of the end. The destruction and exile that followed the siege could have been avoided had the Jews of the time reacted to this episode properly, as is revealed through a fascinating linguistic curiosity in G-d’s prophecy to Ezekiel about these events.

Ezekiel 24:2: "Son of man, write for yourself the name of the day, this very day; the king of Babylon has besieged Jerusalem on this very day.” The Hebrew word for “besieged” in this verse is “samach” which is highly irregular since “samach” is typically used in the context of “support” which is the opposite of a siege.

Upon deeper reflection, it’s clear that the Babylonian siege had the potential of creating a profoundly positive circumstance. Under siege, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were prevented from leaving and unable to go about their personal business as usual. The attackers forced them to come together, regardless of their personal feelings for each other. As alluded to in the double meaning of “samach,” the horrifying “siege” provided them with an unexpected “support,” forcing them to unite as a single collective in true love, and thus avert the Holy Temple’s destruction and their exile.

Alas, the Jerusalemites of the time did not seize the golden opportunity and their hatred for each other and other problems led to the subsequent disasters. But the message of “samach” still resonates strongly for us today.

The most important factor in overcoming all adversity as a nation is our ability to unite together through the strong bonds of Torah and Mitzvot. By increasing in Torah study, Mitzvah observance and including all our fellow Jews in the experience, we pave the way to victory on all fronts and prepare ourselves and the world for complete and final redemption through Moshiach, who will usher in an era of true world peace and tranquility for all.

 

The Epilogue to Chanukah

This Shabbat is one of the rare occasions we read the Torah portion of Mikeitz when it is not Chanukah. Usually, Shabbat Mikeitz coincides with Chanukah and we read from two Torahs during services. In the first we read Parshat Mikeitz, in the second about Chanukah and the Haftorah - the readings from the Prophets we conclude the Torah service with on Shabbat and festivals - is connected to Chanukah. This year, however, we will only read Mikeitz from one Torah and recite the Haftorah from Chapter 3 in the Book of Kings, an event that will occur once again in 17 years, so let’s talk about it.

After King David’s passing, his twelve-year-old son Solomon assumed the throne. One evening G-d offered him in a dream whatever he wished. Instead of seeking wealth, honor, or longevity the young monarch requested “Give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and bad; for who can judge Your great people?"

G-d was pleased with his request and granted him tremendous wisdom “so that there was none like you before you, nor after you shall any arise like you,” as well as wealth, honor, and longevity.

This week’s Haftorah’s opens with the words “And Solomon awoke, and behold it was a dream” and that very morning his divinely granted wisdom was put to the test. Two harlots who lived together had a serious dispute over the ownership of a child. Both had recently given birth to baby boys and that evening when one of them awoke to nurse her baby she was horrified to find him dead. Jealous that her roommate would have a living child, she quietly switched her dead child for the other’s living one and the two women stood before the king each claiming the living baby.

After appraising the situation King Solomon called for a sword. “"Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other,” he decreed.

One of the women anguishedly cried out “Give her the living child, but don’t kill him!” and the other one said, "Let it be neither mine nor yours, divide it."

Pointing to the first woman, King Solomon declared she was the mother of the living child, and all of Israel was awed at their king’s divine wisdom.

King Solomon led the Jewish people for forty prosperous and peaceful years, presided over one of the most consequential Jewish High Courts in our history, and authored some of the most profound texts of Jewish wisdom. Yet, the opening act to his divine wisdom involved a person so depraved as to have an infant killed due to petty jealousy. This is because Torah’s wisdom is meant to impact even the lowest and worst elements of society.

This is the perfect epilogue for Chanukah. For eight nights we illustrated that creating light was the only effective way to combat darkness, and the need to progressively increase in light. Now that Chanukah is over we must realize the light of Torah can and must illuminate the deepest darkness of depravity and immorality. Instead of trying to understand it, we need to combat it with ever increasing Torah wisdom and behavior, and very soon this epic battle will culminate in the eradication of darkness and the start of an era of true peace and tranquility for all, with the coming of Moshiach.

 

The Menorah in Gaza

 Gaza Menorah.jpg

I’d like you to see this special photo of Israeli soldiers setting up a huge Menorah in the middle of the battlefields of Gaza during the temporary lull in fighting this week. The fact that this symbolic act was approved and endorsed by every level of the Israeli military and was welcomed and appreciated by the wider Israeli public is another indication of what this terrible war is really about.

War is ugly, but the fact of the matter is that Jews have been forced to engage in war since the very beginning of our existence. The story of this week's parsha is the standard for how Jews should deal with armed conflict and mortal enemies.

After 20 years away from home hiding from his murderous brother Eisav’s wrath, Yaakov traveled back to the Land of Israel with a large family and a considerable fortune. He sent angels with a message seeking peaceful rapprochement and was distressed upon hearing that Eisav spurned his overtures and was marching toward him and his vulnerable camp with 400 warriors.

In response, Yaakov prepared for war by splitting his camp into two to ensure at least some survived the impending attack. He then sent a large gift to appease his brother as a diplomatic gesture to avoid the conflict altogether. And finally, he prayed to G-d for protection and salvation.

For thousands of years, Jews have been inspired by Yaakov’s three-pronged approach to his rendezvous with Eisav. Although we try to avoid armed conflict through diplomacy, we must never do so at the cost of Jewish lives and be prepared to defend ourselves in every way possible. Most importantly, we must always remember that our victories and long-term security arrangements depend on G-d alone, and we must verbally acknowledge that through prayer as well.

The heroes of the Chanukah story are called Macabbess which is an acronym of the Biblical verse “Who is like You O G-d among the mighty!” which was their battle cry for the duration of their war. Even when they attacked their enemies with weapons and guerilla tactics, their confidence in their cause and readiness to enter battle stemmed exclusively from their faith in G-d.

The huge Menorah in Gaza reflects the same ideal. When we are fighting for survival and the ability of seven million Jews to live in peace and tranquility in every inch of the Holy Land, we must always remember that our presence there is a Divine mandate, and the war we are now waging is a Divine obligation. This awareness will surely bring with it miraculous success.

As the fighting resumes in Gaza we continue to pray for the safety of our soldiers, for the immediate return of ALL the hostages and the wellbeing of all the inhabitants of Israel and the flames of the Menorah remind us that light will always overcome darkness and good will always overcome evil despite the overwhelming odds.


 

Here’s an Important Perspective to Remember

These past six weeks have been a roller coaster for the world about everything Israel and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. While I am not a member of the Israeli security cabinet, nor a lead negotiator, I interact with many who are often unsure how to feel about news reports and media characterizations about the current war. Here is an interesting lesson from this week’s parsha that sheds light on an important Jewish perspective.

Since his brother Eisav was determined to kill him, Yaakov fled to his uncle Lavan who lived in a faraway land called Charan. As he approached his family’s hometown, he encountered shepherds gathered by a well and met his cousin Rachel, Lavan’s daughter, for the first time. Here is how the Torah describes their conversation:

“And Yaakov told Rachel that he was her father's relative and that he was Rivka's son.”

This introduction seems to be redundant. If he introduced himself as Rivka’s son would that not include the fact that he was Lavan’s relative?

The eleventh-century sage Rashi clarifies this by quoting the Midrash: “If he (Lavan) comes to deceive me, I, too, am his brother in deception, and if he is an honest man, I, too, am the son of his honest sister Rivka.”

Yaakov’s message to Lavan was simple. I am coming to you for protection but I know you are a cunning cheat. Don’t have the wrong ideas about my philosophy in life. True, I was raised by your honest sister Rivka and have monotheistic morals and ethics imbued in me. But don’t think my beliefs will render me a gullible sitting duck. The Torah demands that to protect myself, my best interests, and my family I must employ every trick in the book to outsmart you, even if it makes me look like the diabolical Lavan.

King Solomon declared "There is a time for war and a time for peace." As long as there is an enemy focused on fighting against you, you must focus on winning completely and decisively. Doing so saves lives on both sides and prevents the enemy from trying to wage war again in the future.

Just as the Torah provides concrete rules on how to build a Sukkah, prepare meat for consumption, and observe Shabbat, the Torah sets forth guidelines on how to wage war. In order to ensure that misguided ethics or misplaced empathy do not ruin the chances for victory, Jews must look to the Torah for guidance on how to wage war ethically and compassionately. Often, the words “ethics” and “compassion” are used incorrectly and cynically, with deadly consequences and we must never fall for that.

We continue to pray to G-d for the safe return of ALL the hostages, the welfare of Israel Defense Forces troops and all the residents in the Land of Israel, as well as that the proper wisdom, strength and faith be granted to Israel’s leadership to guide our people to victory.

 

Stop Trying to Understand Antisemitism

Last week, while attending the International Chabad Convention in Brooklyn, a reporter asked me why there is an explosion of antisemitism throughout the world now. I responded that instead of trying to understand hatred, let’s eliminate it, similar to dispelling darkness by creating light because understanding it won’t fix the problem.

An interesting episode in this week’s parsha illustrates this point in a few short verses.

Due to a famine in the land, our second forefather Yitzchak moved to the Philistines region ruled by a mighty king named Avimelech. Years earlier, his mother Sarah was abducted by the ruthless monarch and was saved only due to dramatic Divine intervention. Yitzchak’s wife Rivka barely escaped the same fate and after Yitzchak became fabulously wealthy through growing crops, Avimelech banished him from the region. Even then, the Philistines continued harassing him over ownership of water wells he dug. Simply put, their antisemitic credentials were rock solid.

Suddenly, Avimelech and his general Fichol initiated a visit to Yitzchak, and this is how their conversation is recorded in the Torah. (Genesis 26: 27-29)

And Yitzchak said to them, "Why have you come to me, since you hate me, and you sent me away from you?" And they said, "We have seen that the L-rd was with you; so we said: Let there now be an oath between us, between ourselves and you, and let us form a covenant with you. If you do [not] harm us, as we have not touched you, and as we have done with you only good, and we sent you away in peace, [so do] you now, blessed of the L-rd."

Yitzchak was not impressed with their overtures and did not consider the possibility they had stopped hating him. After all, how does one rehabilitate someone from having such an irrational and silly perspective? However, even though Avimelech did not deny his antisemitism was still strong, he formed an alliance with Yitzchak because he respected and revered his connection to G-d.

The lesson is clear. To live peacefully side by side with neighbors or nations who may be antisemitic one does not need to understand their hatred or purge them of it. Gaining their respect is what’s necessary and as Rabbi Jonothan Sacks famously said, “In my extensive world experience I observed that non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism.”

Strengthening and advertising our connection to G-d through doing more mitzvot openly and proudly and unabashedly sharing the Torah worldview is the best way to ensure peace with our neighbors.

Lest you think I have no hope for a time when antisemitism will disappear from humanity, fear not. Our prophets foretold that in the Messianic era, “the wolf will lie with the lamb” which is a metaphor for the fact that all nations will dwell together in peace without hatred or strife. And since, as Maimonides famously declared, one good action, spoken word, or even thought can usher in the blessed Messianic era of redemption, let’s work together to make it a reality by increasing in acts of goodness and kindness, and rid the world of antisemitism forever.

 

The Courage to Change

It takes courage to change your mind. It takes superhuman effort to change your whole outlook.

Here is a story of a conversation that occurred close to 160 years ago between two leaders of the Chabad movement that provides tremendous insight into how we can always become better people.

This week’s Parsha begins with the story of how Avraham experienced a tremendous revelation from G-d after observing the Mitzvah of Bris (circumcision) when he was 99 years old. This Shabbat also coincides with the 20th of Cheshvan on the Jewish calendar, which is the birthday of the fifth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber, who had an exceptional relationship with his grandfather, the third Chabad Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek.

On the Shabbat evening of his fourth or fifth birthday, he walked into his grandfather’s study and started crying. “I learned in school that G-d revealed Himself to our patriarch Avraham. Why does G-d not reveal himself to me?”

“When a Jew who is 99 years old decides it’s appropriate to do a Bris,” the Tzemach Tzedek responded, “he is worthy of such an intense divine revelation.”

There is so much to unpack from this story, but I’d like to focus on one aspect of the response. The fact that Avraham observed G-d’s command to do a circumcision despite his old age is not the most impressive thing he did during his lifetime. Early on he was called upon to risk his life to prove his allegiance to G-d and later on he was willing to sacrifice his son to fulfill G-d’s command.

The symbolism of the circumcision is that although Avraham was the embodiment of piety and the greatest champion for G-d and G-d awareness in the world for close to a century, he was nevertheless ready for radical change even at such an advanced age. The Bris circumcision is not a medical surgery, it is G-d’s way of branding Avraham. No longer would his passion for Monotheism be the product of his own intellectual and emotional growth or efforts, it would now become his very essence.

These are the kind of “late-in-life” changes that continue to define the beauty of our people. Over the last two weeks, I had the pleasure of helping two Jews wear Tefillin for the first time in their lives, and another Jew well into his eighties who last wore Tefillin when he was 20 years old. These three friends proved to me it is never too late in life to “change your mind” or even “change your perspective.”

The same applies to national perspectives that can impact all of Israel and Jews around the world. A month ago certain widely accepted perspectives have proven to be tragically wrong and misguided. Avraham teaches us that we can have the courage to examine them, reject them, and seek out the Torah's true perspectives that will inevitably pave our path to true and lasting peace for all.

My friend Rabbi Dovid Margolin authored an important article on this topic illustrating how the Torah can provide world Jewry the clarity and encouragement we so desperately need. I highly recommend the lengthy read :)

https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/6148232/jewish/It-Is-Time-to-Declare-the-Truth-About-the-Jews-and-Israel.htm

 

This week I found the words

The third week of the war is coming to an end. Our brothers and sisters in Israel are fighting a war and we are trying to support them in every way possible, spiritually, financially, and everything in between. We are confident that the next stages of the war will result in victory and pray to G-d that the hostages are redeemed and that everyone remains safe and sound.

This week I found the words I needed to articulate what we need to know about this current conflict. You see, there is a Jewish tradition dating back to Moses for Jews to read a portion of the Torah every week, commonly known as the weekly Parsha. This exercise is not meant to simply connect us to our most treasured traditions, rather it is the way G-d communicates to us everything we need to know about the current week. As the Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad movement famously taught, “We must live with the times,” which means we must live our lives based on the timely messages we can learn from the weekly Parsha.

Sometimes it’s easier to understand the divine messages and their relevance and sometimes more difficult, but this week I found the messages from the Parsha to be crystal clear.

The opening story of this week’s Parsha is G-d’s instruction to our patriarch Abraham to go to Israel. Although at the time it was known as the “Land of Canaan” because the heathen Canaanites were conquering it from the indigenous Semites, G-d promised Abraham the land would ultimately belong to his descendants, the Jewish people.

The divine eternal promise of the land is mentioned four different times throughout the Parsha, in four separate contexts: 1. Upon Abraham’s arrival to the land. 2. After his nephew Lot moves away from him. 3. At the Covenant of the Parts. 4. When G-d instructed Abraham to do the Bris circumcision when he was 99 years old.

The most important message we must know as Jews throughout the world is that the Land of Israel belongs to us. Especially when many nations protest the Jewish presence in the Middle East, we must know with absolute certainty that the Jews living in Israel are in the right place at the right time and should never apologize for it.

Perhaps more chillingly connected to our current circumstances, is the fact that twice in the Parsha we learn how someone close to Abraham was taken hostage. His wife Sara was kidnapped by the Egyptian Pharaoh and his nephew Lot was taken captive by a marauding army of an Axis of four evil nations. Sound familiar?

When Sara was kidnapped, neither G-d nor Abraham negotiated her release. G-d inflicted Pharaoh and his household with some terrifying inflictions and she was hastily released the next morning. When Lot was taken captive Abraham did not hesitate to go to war against the armies who snatched him despite the overwhelming odds. Miraculously he managed to wipe them out and rescue all the captives and their possessions.

On Monday, as I thanked G-d for the release of two elderly Jewish women from captivity at the hands of the barbarians in Gaza, I realized that the second section of the Parsha, which correlates to Monday, is the section that discusses the miraculous release of our Matriarch Sara from captivity. There is no coincidence!

I hope this message encourages you to appreciate the miracles happening as we speak and to take an active role in winning this war through increasing in Torah study, Mitzvah observance and giving charity. Keep your morale high and think positively about the future. And may we merit very soon for all this to come to an end with the arrival of Moshiach who will usher in an era of global peace and tranquility for all.

 

 

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