Rabbis' Blog

Celebrating the Repairs

One of my mentors once said: “A fool is not someone who never makes a mistake. A fool is someone who does not learn from his mistakes.”

Judaism teaches not only can mistakes be channeled into future success, but they can be repaired as well. On the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, we recognize our moral fragility and the many mistakes we are prone to make in life, but most importantly our ability to repair them all. 

The structure of the new Jewish year of 5784 and the reasons for it provide an important lesson on the power of repair in every area of life. 

There are two systems with which to set up a calendar.  The 29.5-day lunar cycle is the source for the time unit we call "month"; the 365.25-day solar cycle is the basis for the annual cycle of seasons referred to as "year."

Most calendars are modeled on one cycle alone but the Jewish calendar follows both. Dates follow the months of the lunar cycle, but the festivals must be in their respective season – Passover in the spring, Sukkot in the fall, etc. So the lunar months must always align themselves with the seasons of the year, which are governed by the sun. Thus, the Jewish calendar is "Luni-Solar."

The problem is that these two cycles are not compatible with each other - twelve lunar months add up to 354 days, eleven days short of a solar year. Just a few years down the line Passover can be celebrated during a fierce blizzard and the Chanukah candles lit in a heat wave.

To make up for lost time, every two to three years is known as a Jewish leap year. Unlike the Gregorian (and Julian) leap year, in which an extra day is added, the Jewish leap year has an entire extra month, which brings the lunar cycle up to date with the solar cycle, with some extra days for “credit.”

On a deeper level, the sun and the moon represent two distinct characteristics.

The sun radiates its light in the same constant manner, without perceptible change from day to day. If the sky is clear, one sees the same amount of the sun’s globe every single day. The moon, on the other hand, becomes “renewed” or “reborn” at the beginning of each month. It begins as a narrow crescent, becoming fuller and brighter from day to day until it attains its complete fullness and brightness on the fourteenth or fifteenth day of the Jewish month. Then it becomes narrower and smaller in the month’s second half until it disappears.

The sun represents the element of sameness and constancy; the moon represents change and renewal. In Judaism, it is imperative to have both. Just as law without the spirit is uninviting and repressive, spirit without law is flaky and transient. A healthy combination of both the sun and moon elements is a sure recipe for success.

And like in the case of the lunisolar year, this combination does not always exactly match up in a fine neat bundle and sometimes we need to “repair” the discrepancies. But we can certainly repair it and even gain extra credit. This is the message of Yom Kippur: the celebration of our ability and obligation to repair everything and then some.

Something to think about during the Shofar blowing

Several weeks ago we celebrated a Bar Mitzvah at Chabad and the Bar Mitzvah boy Dani shared a great speech. The content of his remarks emerged from a conversation we had in one of our learning sessions before the big day.

Dani’s favorite sport is basketball and since Judaism believes everything in this world can serve as a lesson in our divine service, we examined what we can learn from basketball to become better Jews and appreciate the meaning of Bar Mitzvah.

Here’s an idea we came up with. Every player playing on the court does many things. They take shots, block shots from the other team, steal the ball, dribble, run, jump - you get the picture. The NBA keeps track of all the essential things players do throughout the game and ranks them accordingly.

Shots and steals are obviously recorded, but it’s interesting to note that assists are recorded as well. In basketball, an assist is attributed to a player who passes the ball to a teammate in a way that leads directly to a score, meaning that they were "assisting" in the basket.

How does this all connect to Bar Mitzvah?

The word Mitzvah means a commandment. G-d is the commander and we are the receivers of the command. These commands are not random. When done correctly, every Mitzvah is like a slam dunk or a three-pointer, and some of them are like shots made from downtown. Every time we do something G-d wants us to do, we make the world a better place, and becoming Bar Mitzvah means becoming a professional player on the court of life, charged with the mission of making as many points as possible.

But we must always remember we are not playing alone. We are part of a team, and an integral part of the mission is to make “assists.” Instead of focusing exclusively on our own Judaism, we must emphasize assisting others as well so we can get the entire team to the winning shot at the buzzer.

Now I realize this speech fits beautifully with Rosh Hashanah and the blowing of the Shofar. On the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah we always read the Torah portion of Nitzavim which begins with these words:

“You are all standing this day before the L-rd, your G-d the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel. Your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers, that you may enter the covenant of the L-rd, your G-d…”

Jewish mysticism explains, that while these words were said by Moshe during the month of Adar, “this day” refers to Rosh Hashanah and the covenant referenced here, which encompasses all Jews from the highest levels to the lowest levels, repeats itself each year on Rosh Hashanah.

The Shofar blowing is described as G-d’s coronation ceremony when we accept His sovereignty and commit to living according to His instructions, as well as a rallying call for unity. So if you like Dani’s basketball analogy here’s a thought to keep in mind as we blow the Shofar on Sunday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The new year 5784 marks a new game on the court of our universe and we’re all on the same team. Let’s resolve to play good offense - by doing more mitzvot this year; play good defense - by abstaining from prohibitions this year; and most importantly to assist, assist and assist.

May you and yours be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet new year!

Chag Sameach and Shana Tova!

The Key to a Happy and Healthy Marriage

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Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of Adam and Eve, and it is also the anniversary of the first marriage in history. I find it fascinating that the first words Adam said of his wife Eve recorded in the Torah capture the essence of marriage and intimacy.

After G-d had created everything in this world in six days, the world was ready for the creation of humanity, the species charged with bringing the recognition of the creator to creation. Adam was created first and as he opened his eyes, he praised G-d the Creator of the world and gathered all living creatures to kneel and bow to G-d, thus Crowning G-d King of the world. We, as Adam’s descendants, recrown G-d as our King every year on Rosh Hashana.

His first mission was to name all of the animals. To be clear, this job was not some leisure walk in the park like someone would choose a name for their pet. G-d created the world through speaking into being with the biblical Hebrew known as Lashon Hakodesh “the holy tongue” and Adam was charged with revealing which Hebrew letters comprised the spiritual energy of each respective animal. He accomplished this mission with a divinely endowed wisdom that was superior then the wisdom possessed by the angels!

As he named all the animals, Adam noticed that each species was created as a pair, male and female and he yearned for a mate of his own. The Torah records how G-d put him to sleep and created the first woman from a piece of Adam’s body. When Adam met his soulmate he gave her a name saying (Genesis 2:23) “She will be called ISHA for she was taken from ISH (which means man).”

Of course, the first woman is more famously known as “Chava” or Eve, but that name only came to be after she gave birth to children. Her original name as the soul mate of Adam was ISHA.

Here is the fascinating thing about the biblical Hebrew language. It’s a fascinating maze of interconnected concepts and ideas all embedded in the various words constructed by the 22 letters of the Aleph Bet, and there is so much to learn from comparing similar words.

The words ISH and ISHA are constructed with the same letters as the word AISH which means fire. Whereas Adam could have named his soulmate with another variation of the divine names for humanity, he specifically chose these two words to describe their united relationship and marriage.

Everything in this world, including humans, is constructed of four basic elements: fire, water, air and earth. Adam understood that the fundamental force that unites male and female humans and brings two separate entities to become one family unit, is their shared fire. Fire represents purity, love, warmth, light, and passion and this gift of energy is the fuel that keeps a marriage strong. 

But like fire, if this energy is not properly channeled, it can be destructive and devastating. The Torah as our divine guide to life provides us the manual to nurturing and channeling our passion and love in our marriages properly - through the mitzvah of Mikvah. For over three thousand years, Jewish couples have found that intimacy revolving around this critical mitzvah holds the key to healthy and happy marriages.

Please call me at 915-241-5711 to learn more about observing this beautiful mitzvah.


My Special Trip to Juarez

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I am always gratified to experience how events come together in such a magnificent and beautiful manner in an obvious expression of divine providence, and I’d like to share with you how this past Monday was one of those days. With the help of my friend Armando Velez an editor at the Spanish language El Diario newspaper, I made a special trip to Juarez, and here is why it was so meaningful.

The foundational text of Chabad Chassidic philosophy is the book of Tanya, authored by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and published in 1797. It is a guide for how everyone can and should serve G-d and actively contribute to making the entire world a place of divine peace and tranquility, based on the groundbreaking teachings of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement in the mid 1700s. Both the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe were born on the 18th day of Elul, which this year was celebrated this past Monday.

Tanya has transformed countless lives over the centuries, not only through its intellectual and philosophical brilliance but mainly because its teachings are culled from the deepest levels of Torah scholarship and provide access to the innermost dimensions of our souls. It is aptly compared to a wellspring that provides spiritual life-giving waters for eternity to the spiritually parched. The Baal Shem Tov was told by Moshiach that the era of redemption when true peace and tranquility will reign depends on these teachings reaching everyone in the world, no matter how “far and out” they may be.

In 1978 the Rebbe launched a campaign to publish special editions of the Tanya in every city where even a single Jew currently lives, and explained the significance of the project through the analogy of the wellspring. A wellspring with a thin trickle of water eventually grows into a gushing river that reaches very far, but whereas the river can eventually dry up, the wellspring never does. In addition to bringing the messages of Tanya to everyone in every place by bringing books published elsewhere, printing a special edition of the Tanya in every location makes them the source of Tanya giving it the transformative energy of the wellspring that never dries up. When the local Jews now study the ideas of Tanya and work to apply them, they are dealing with a locally published book, emphasizing its local relevance.

Although we did not plan it this way, conflicting schedules delayed the project in such a manner that it ended up happening on a most auspicious day. On the birthday of both the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, the 8,092nd edition of Tanya, containing their transformative teachings, was printed in Juarez, Mexico. Here is another reason why Monday was so auspicious for this event. One of the themes in the second section of this week’s Torah portion - which was traditionally studied on Monday - emphasizes that when Jews are scattered around the world during exile, the presence of one single Jew in a remote location is profoundly important to G-d and plays an role in bringing the redemption through Moshiach.

As ink met paper in a Juarez printshop, a handful of local Jews gathered for the ceremony. We chatted about the upcoming High Holidays and one of them wrapped Tefillin on the spot. Everyone in the shop was invited to place charity in the Tzedaka box and when the first set of copies was complete, we studied some lines from the newly published Tanya.

Following the Rebbe’s lead in 1978, Juarez with its 2.1 million strong population and handful of Jews, became a wellspring of the Torah teachings that will prepare every individual and the entire world for the era of Moshiach, may this happen very soon! 


The Mikvah Under the Kitchen Floor

An MLB executive once said, “We never evaluate a player based on his worst day.” While I can appreciate the fairness of that rule, evaluating someone’s character based on their worst circumstances is clearly a powerful barometer for measuring how strong their character really is.

In this week’s parsha there is a section of 48 verses that record 98 horrifying curses destined to befall the Israelites if they do not observe the commandments and follow the Torah. It’s a sobering read, traditionally read quickly, in a more hushed tone than usual and unfortunately, they all came to pass at various times during our long and painful history.

When the annual Torah reading schedule was set up, the sages instituted that this section be read in close proximity to Rosh Hashanah. There is a wealth of Torah literature explaining why and  I’d like to focus on one possible explanation.

This Wednesday will mark one month since the passing of my grandmother, Mrs. Devorah Greenberg. When she passed I shared a brief overview of her life, which started off in Soviet Russia under the oppressive communist regime. The Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain lived a life that reflected one of the searing curses in this week’s parsha. “And among those nations, you will not be calm, nor will your foot find rest. There, G-d will give you a trembling heart, dashed hopes, and a depressed soul.”

When she was a teenager her family moved to Bolshevo, a suburb of Moscow where she eventually married and started her own family before immigrating to Israel in 1966. Living close to Moscow came with the advantage of having access to one of the only government-sanctioned Mikvahs in the entire USSR. Although hundreds of Mikvahs throughout the land were shut down, the communists sought to project religious tolerance in their socialist utopia and a handful of genuinely kosher mikvahs operated in some major cities.

Nonetheless, her father Rabbi Aharon Chazan built a small Mikvah under their kitchen floor in case the authorities closed down the Moscow Mikvah. However, the Chazan women did not regularly use their in-house Mikvah to observe the laws of “Taharat Hamishpacha - family sanctity” and they always made the trip to the main Mikvah instead. Here’s why.

The KGB kept tabs on the women using the official Mikvah in Moscow. Everyone knew the Chazan family was strictly observant and if the KGB realized the Chazan women were not using the main Mikvah, they would know without a doubt there was another one operating in the area and finding it would become a top priority.

Here you have a family living a nightmare, but their commitment to living Jewishly was so strong that even their sworn enemies took it as a matter of fact.

On Rosh Hashanah we crown G-d as King of the universe through blowing the Shofar and committing ourselves to be loyal and obedient subjects. To live our lives in accordance with G-d’s will to make our world a place that reflects the true purpose of its creator. While we pray and beseech G-d to provide us with the best circumstances so we can live up to this annual commitment in comfort and freedom, reading these curses two weeks earlier teaches us how strong and ironclad our commitment to Judaism can and should be. One that can withstand even the harshest circumstances and certainly any and all distractions.

May G-d bless all of us with a Shana Tova Umetuka, a good and sweet new year!


Greeting the King

Today is the first day of the Jewish month called Elul, the time to prepare for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur through personal introspection and increasing our Torah study and Mitzvah observance.

Yesterday I read a beautiful story of a boy who had the opportunity to be blessed by the Rebbe in honor of his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. As was standard practice, the Rebbe inquired about his studies and was surprised that in addition to Talmudic topics, he already studied some Chassidic philosophy, specifically the famous discourse about the month of Elul from the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, entitled “Ani Ledodi.”

This foundational text is an entry point for most Chabad youngsters into the fascinating world of Chassidism. The core question of the discourse is why mystical Jewish teachings compare the mundane days of Elul to the solemn and hallowed days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The answer comes in the guise of a story about a king who is always in the royal palace far away from his subjects. Once in a while, the king chooses to go out to the fields and meet the common folk on their turf. There he is informal and joyous, everyone can approach him, and he is ever so gracious and giving with a beaming smile.

Likewise, the Alter Rebbe concludes, during the month of Elul G-d is close to us, similar to the closeness of the High Holidays. However, in Elul, G-d is like the smiling king in the field as opposed to the formal king in the royal palace we experience on the High Holidays.

When the Bar Mitzvah boy mentioned this discourse, the Rebbe asked, “Did you learn about the king in the field?”

“I did.”

“Did you ever meet the King?” the Rebbe asked, and after a brief pause continued, “Every time you say a blessing with the words “Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d,” you are meeting the King in the field.”

With this, the Rebbe anchored the centuries-old analogy to modern-day reality. The benevolent King of all kings is not a theoretical concept only accessible to scholars and mystics in the context of spiritual ecstasy. Simply drinking a glass of water brings the opportunity to encounter G-d face to face, so to speak, informally and joyously.

So as we begin the important task of preparing ourselves for the awesome divine coronation on Rosh Hashanah and to merit atonement on Yom Kippur, let’s be more mindful of the small yet powerful opportunities we have to connect with G-d on a personal level, specifically in the mundane and regular aspects of life.

Here is a link to a guide on how to make the proper blessings before eating food.

Let’s go greet the smiling King!


My Bubby

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On Monday evening, my grandmother, Mrs. Devorah Greenberg, passed away in Israel, surrounded by her children. As I grieved for the loss of my “Bubby,” the tributes pouring in from around the world described a true “woman of valor” whose legacy many wish to emulate. While she never held a leadership position or even a job, how she lived every day of her life and what she left in this world is being hailed by so many as legendary.

Born in 1938 in Soviet Russia under the terrifying anti-religious communist oppression on the eve of World War Two, her early life was marked by starvation, flight, and terror. Her family fled the Nazi onslaught and toiled to remain faithful and observant Jews in the hostile environment. Her father Rabbi Aharon Chazan was a heroic warrior in the underground network of Jewish schools, synagogues, mikvaot and even had a Matzah bakery operating in his home throughout the year to provide thousands of Jews with Shmura Matzah for Pesach.

During the funeral, her younger brother related a story that expresses how she absorbed and embodied the same level of Jewish commitment and sacrifice her parents lived with. The children were forced to attend the atheistic and antisemitic public schools, even on Shabbat, not to be seized by the government and placed in orphanages. However, every week they came up with another gimmick on how not to violate the sanctity of the day. When my grandmother’s eldest son entered the first grade, one of the Soviet teachers commented that surely the next generation of the Chazan family was more Sovietized and would not give the teachers the same “grief,” to which his teacher replied, “he is even more fanatic than his uncles and aunts!”

They miraculously emigrated to Israel in the winter of 1966, and as they settled in a tiny apartment in Bnei Brak, their home became a beehive of non-stop activity. Their family grew to include 17 children, guests were a constant presence and all Chabad activities in the area operated from there. And while my grandfather was making a living and coordinating the activities, Bubby kept it all anchored with her quiet grace and charm. That every one of her children committed themselves to be the Rebbe’s emissaries throughout the world is the strongest testimony to her passion and love for Judaism - and was her greatest joy. We always joked that the sun never set on her real estate as evidenced by the clock in her dining room with all her children’s timezones.

The fact that many of her grandchildren were born and raised in America and did not speak Hebrew as children, had all the makings of a “generation gap” between us, but those rules did not apply to her. We all loved and adored her and she found a way to express her love for us. She was thrilled with every opportunity to feed and care for us and when I finally learned to speak Hebrew and Yiddish, we spoke plenty.

She often reminded me why my birthday was so memorable for her. Although she had left Russia twenty years earlier, her first trip to New York happened in the spring of 1986 when I was born so she came to help my parents. Although I was not the first grandchild, it was a monumental milestone for her because she was finally able to see the Rebbe to whom she had submitted every fiber of her being.

This week’s parsha begins with “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” The blessing comes when we heed the Torah and observe the Mitzvot and the curse comes as a result of the opposite. We alone must make the choice and reality proves that the voice is not always an easy one.

Bubby’s life was filled with many choices. Targeted by Hitler for extermination and Stalin for assimilation she contended with issues most of us will never encounter in our lifetime, but she made the right choices without sophistication or fanfare and always with a joie de vivre. She was not a visionary nor did she claim to know the secret to Jewish continuity, but she had the herculean strength of character to overcome life’s challenges through following the truth of Torah and her legacy speaks volumes for it.

I will miss her terribly but I know that she truly lives on in the many lives she continues to inspire throughout the world by nurturing her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren as a Bubby should. And I hope to emulate her example of making good choices in life with simplicity and true faith as she did.

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How far we must go

Monday will mark 79 years to the passing of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, the Rebbe’s father, who served as the chief rabbi of Dnieper, Ukraine for several decades.

In the spring of 1939, the communists arrested him for his unrelenting struggle to keep Judaism behind the Iron Curtain alive. He was jailed, interrogated, and tortured for many months and finally banished to the remote town of Chile, Kazakhstan for five years. The isolation and malnourishment took its toll and two months after moving to the larger city of Almaty with its fledgling Jewish community, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak passed away at the age of 66.

In the early 1920s, when the Soviets unleashed their war on Judaism, many prominent rabbis and leaders fled to the free world to reestablish their academies and continue studying and teaching Torah in peace. The previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok, remained there and created the most intricate and sophisticated network of underground Jewish activism to ensure the millions of Russian Jewry would not be lost to our people forever. In 1927 he was banished from the Soviet Union but remained in touch with his thousands of students and followers there and continued to support their heroic activities.

On the ground, however, the last remaining prominent rabbinical figure was Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, and throughout the 1930s he stopped at nothing to make Jewish observance more bearable for all Jews.

To appreciate the extent of his sacrifice it’s important to realize that he was a brilliant scholar in Jewish law and mysticism and had authored thousands of pages of original Torah teachings. It is quite plausible that if he would have secluded himself in his vast library and interacted only with local Jews who sought his teachings and counsel the authorities would never bother him. Instead, he chose to endanger his life and scholarly legacy to confront the powerful evil regime to benefit Jews throughout the country who were not technically his rabbinic responsibility.

Here is one example of this. As all factories in Russia were owned by the government, it was their policy that set the standard for the matzah production, but Jews would not buy the matzah for Pesach without proper rabbinic supervision.

The authorities instructed Rabbi Levi Yitzchak to endorse the government baked matzah but he refused unless his handpicked supervisors were installed in every bakery and answered solely to him. To this end he traveled to Moscow and explained his position to President Mikhail Kalinin who then gave him exclusive authority on the matzah production.

That year tens of thousands of Jews had kosher matzah for the holiday, but the enraged officials arrested the heroic rabbi days before Pesach. As a result, he spent the rest of his life in tremendous suffering and isolation, without books to study or fellow Jews to interact with. Decades of his tireless work of transcribing volumes of Torah teachings were lost as well, but his efforts played an essential role in keeping countless of our brothers and sisters connected to our heritage for generations to come.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok teaches us the sacrifices we should be willing to make for the spiritual benefit of others. Even if it may negatively impact our own spirituality, nothing should stand in the way of reaching out to the furthest places, literally or figuratively, to ensure no Jew is ever lost to our people.

We encounter these choices more often than we can imagine. So let's be inspired to prioritize the spiritual needs of others and realize the impact this can have beyond our imagination.


When the moon signaled all was well

Last month, we spent some time in Brooklyn and cherished visiting Shainy’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor well into her nineties, may she live and be well. Her generation truly expresses what it means to be Jewish, not because of the horrors they experienced, but because of what they did in the aftermath of it all.

Here is a snippet of how the Yad Vashem website describes the post-war years. “Most survivors had lost their entire families, and alongside the feelings of loss and loneliness was the yearning to establish families of their own, resulting in a marriage boom after liberation. In the years 1946-1948, the birth rate in the DP camps was the highest in the world.”

This is so inspiring to me because despite suffering most from all humanity during the war years, and still not knowing what the future would bring, these survivors did everything to bring more life to a world that had brought them so much death.

This week we observed Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the Jewish day of fasting and mourning for the destruction of both Holy Temples, the second of which was destroyed 1,995 years ago. Every Jewish calamity after that is connected to this one intense day of mourning, but its impact on the Jewish people predates the first Holy Temple by close to 900 years.

As the Jews were about to enter the Promised Land, a little over a year after the exodus from Egypt, ten elders convinced them that war with its inhabitants would be certain suicide. The people wept the entire night of the 9th of Av, bemoaning their fate. Since they wailed for no reason, G-d decreed this date would give them legitimate reasons to cry. Immediately, entry to Israel was delayed by four decades so that the entire generation would die in the desert, and their children would ultimately inherit it.

Every year on the eve of the 9th of Av, the Israelites would sleep in prepared graves, expecting tens of thousands of men to die that night. On the morning of Tisha B’Av of the 40th year (3,295 years ago), everyone was very much alive. Figuring they miscalculated the date, they returned to their graves each night until they saw the full moon shine brightly, signaling it was the 15th of Av, many days after the 9th, evidence that the national death sentence was over and all of them would make it to the Promised Land.

The moon’s participation in communicating these good tidings was significant. Even before they entered their homeland, the Jews learned to take inspiration from the moon, which disappears every month and reappears to its full strength. To understand that even when things are so bad, it seems Judaism and Jews may disappear, our rebirth and ultimate return to full strength is guaranteed.

The 15th of Av became an annual celebration described by the Talmud as “the most joyous holiday on the Jewish calendar” because even though the major holidays of Pesach and Sukkot are also celebrated on the full moon, this full moon is different. Because it follows our greatest destruction, it signals our rebirth even from the depths of the abyss.

The post-Holocaust baby boom in the DP camps is precisely what the Jewish nation was conditioned to do since that fateful day 3,295 years ago when the full moon signaled our travels in the desert were over. We are never identified by our suffering or persecution but rather by our ability to move forward and rebuild with more passion and vitality.

As we celebrate 15 Av this Wednesday, let’s translate this empowering message into action by increasing our Mitzvah observance and Torah study, and may we merit the ultimate rebirth and liberation with the arrival of Moshiach, who will usher in an era of true peace and tranquility for all.


Waiting for the paperwork

While traveling back home with my family earlier this week our second flight - which was close to midnight - remained at the gate for a while after the flight attendants concluded their safety announcements. Finally, the pilot announced everything was ready for takeoff, and they were waiting for certain paperwork to be signed. “We made several phone calls but are unsure when it will happen.” Ten minutes later, he announced the paperwork was in order, and we were in the air within minutes. This minor wrinkle in our travel reminded me of an important theme connected to this Shabbat’s Torah reading and Haftarah reading.

This coming Wednesday evening and Thursday (July 26-27) we will observe Tisha B’Av, the major fast day commemorating the destruction of the two Holy Temples and other major tragedies in Jewish history. While mourning is the overarching theme of the day’s observances (no eating or drinking, wearing non-leather shoes, sitting on low seats until midday, and more) the main message of the extra prayers we say then is about the imminent redemption and rebuilding of the Holy Temple.

On the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av we begin reading the fifth book of the Torah called Devarim, which is a record of Moshe’s final instructions to the Jewish people before they entered the Promised Land. Our sages explain that the forty-year desert sojourn - with its 42 steps - was not a technical itinerary for bringing 3 million people from Egypt to Israel. It represented a necessary spiritual process to prepare the world and the Jews to achieve the monumental goal of transforming the Land of Canaan into the Holy Land through their divine service.

The beginning of the book of Devarim signals that the preparation process is complete and now the Jews need only receive their final pep-talk and instructions before embarking on their mission.

Jewish mysticism explains the same is true about our current reality. The destruction of the Holy Temple and the subsequent exile is not simply divine retribution for our bad behavior. It was the beginning of a long and painful, but necessary, spiritual process to prepare the world and ourselves for the realization of the purpose of creation. When every creature will recognize the Creator and function according to its purpose in creation.

Devarim signals to us that these preparations are complete and we are now standing at the threshold of redemption. So what’s missing? Some important paperwork.

The Haftarah we read this week from Isaiah concludes: Zion shall be redeemed through justice (Torah study) and her penitent through righteousness (charity and mitzvot). Maimonides declared over 800 years ago that one can and must view the world as an equally balanced scale between good and bad and one single good deed, word or thought can tip the balance and usher in the era of redemption for the entire world. In other words, the long and arduous spiritual preparation process of exile is now complete and the only thing holding up redemption is the one mitzvah that can be done or the one Torah idea that can be studied and understood.

We don’t know which one it will be, so let’s be sure not to waste any opportunity to study Torah or do a mitzvah, and not delay the “paperwork” any longer.


 (Inspired by Sichas Devarim 5748)

Here is how you can discover the unimaginable


Yesterday I was pleased to participate in the engagement party of my cousin Chani Wolff of Hannover, Germany to Levi Lapidus of Beitar, Israel, here in New York. Aside from the excellent food, L’chaims and good cheer, several participants shared their good wishes to the bride and groom and inspiration we can glean from this week’s Torah reading.

This week we conclude the fourth book of the Torah called Bamidbar by reading the final two parshas of “Matos and Masei”. Although there are 54 parshas of the Torah and fewer weeks in the year, the annual reading schedule is interrupted by holidays during which we pause the regular pace and read portions uniquely connected to those holidays. Therefore, in order to complete the Torah on time every year, there are some weeks that we couple the parshas together.

The name of a parsha is highly significant as it expresses the theme of the entire parsha, and we can certainly learn deep ideas and life lessons from these names. When the parshas are paired, the two names often express contrasting ideas that ultimately complement each other.

The word “Matos” in the context of this week’s Torah reading means “tribes” as in the Twelve Tribes of Israel, but the word on its own can also mean a rigid, firm wooden staff. “Masei” means journeys, as Moshe recounts the 42 journeys the Jews traveled through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land.

On the surface, the themes of these two names contradict each other, as the rigidity of a wooden staff is the opposite of the flexibility of travel. A wooden staff is unyielding and unchanging, while travel represents the potential for further growth and discovery.

“But in the context of marriage, the creation of a new home, these two seemingly contradictory themes are both integral and complement each other,” explained the groom’s father. “Any edifice must have firm and strong foundations. The stronger and more unyielding the foundation is, the more you can build.” He went on to bless the soon-to-be couple that their illustrious ancestors and the wonderful education they both received should serve as strong foundations for them to build a beautiful family and to be an inspiration to so many.

One of the distinguished guests there, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky shared that the Rebbe once wrote a letter of blessing to a young couple explaining this idea and concluded “You have foundations strong enough to build a skyscraper.”

Jewish daily living demands these two traits of “Matos” and “Masei.” A commitment to persistent behaviors and rituals governed by rigid rules and regulations which then serve as the necessary foundations to further explore the infinite possibilities to bring the light and beauty of Judaism to spaces unimagined before.


The Beauty of Youth

It was a Shabbat afternoon in the summer of 1978 when the Rebbe walked out of the central Chabad synagogue known as 770 towards his home several blocks away. A four-year-old boy named Menachem ran towards the Rebbe, held his hand, and excitedly said “Good Shabbos, Rebbe!” several times with bubbling childish enthusiasm.

Menachem’s mother, standing a few feet away, was mortified. While the Rebbe greeted everyone on his way home on Shabbat, there was an unspoken rule in the community that one never approached the Rebbe during this time. Upset that her child had not followed the proper etiquette, she wrote a note of apology right after Shabbat concluded that evening which opened with the words “I am pained…”

Before sharing the Rebbe’s response to her note, it’s important to point out that this occurred on a Shabbat similar to this upcoming Shabbat. The Haftorah read during synagogue services is a section from the Book of Jeremiah traditionally read in connection with the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.

Here is a free translation of the Rebbe wrote to Menachem’s mother:

?! On the contrary: he caused me tremendous nachas through this, because one cannot imagine the tremendous heartfeltness, simplicity, sincerity and truthfulness of a child - if only a small amount of it could be found in adults. Especially in light of how Chassidisim explains this idea. Moreover, [this occurred] after we read the conclusion of the Haftorah that day which emphasizes the greatness of “the lovingkindness of your youth.” May you raise him, together with the rest of your children, to Torah study, marriage and good deeds. I will mention this at the Ohel. 

While most of the section from Jeremiah in this week’s Haftorah communicates a harsh message of rebuke and warning of impending doom and disaster, it concludes with words of love. “Go and call out in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: so said the L-rd: I remember to you the lovingkindness of your youth.” In the early days of the Jewish nation they excitedly followed G-d out of Egypt into the barren desert with the passion characteristic of young children.

Although children are expected to ultimately grow and mature in most areas of life, the sincerity and passion for living Jewishly - whether in the bastion of spiritual comfort like the Holy Temple in Jerusalem or in the spiritually parched deserts of exile - should continue to blossom and flourish with youthful abandon.

This morning as I waited for the day camp bus together with my daughter we watched a beautiful video collection of encounters children had with the Rebbe during the famous Sunday “Dollars.” A toddler was holding a small doll and after the Rebbe gave her a dollar bill he placed another one on the doll saying “this you should give to charity with the doll.” In this brilliant moment the Rebbe taught us how we could tap into the sincere purity of children and imbue their childish games with meaningful intent. See the video here.

As we mark the anniversary of the beginning of our long and bitter exile, let us tap into out own youthful sincerity and add in our Torah study and Mitzvah observance with more passion and love and anticipate the imminent arrival of Moshiach with the youthful purity we all have.


It’s all about you, here and now


I learned in a fascinating conversation with a history professor that recording history is more about deciding what gets left out than what to put in. So many important things happen in life that can impact entire families, communities, and perhaps the world. Still, only those who share their stories can merit the distinction of becoming part of history. And living life with the awareness that all the details of history occurred as they did to bring you to this place at this time with this opportunity is a foundation of Jewish belief.

This Shabbat, the 12th day of Tammuz, marks 96 years to the redemption of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson of communist imprisonment. Arrested at midnight in the summer of 1927 at his home in Leningrad, Russia the vicious secret police decreed he face a firing squad for the heinous crime of sustaining organized Judaism with his thriving network of underground Jewish institutions. Through a series of miracles, the execution did not happen and he was ultimately released less than a month after his arrest.

Seas did not split and water did not turn into blood, but even the casual observer understood this redemption was a miracle of the highest order. In a fascinating new essay on “12 Tammuz” entitled “The Chassidic Member of Parliament Who Stood Up to the Soviets,” my friend Rabbi Dovid Margolin illustrates how in “the spring, summer and fall of 1927, a whirlwind of international events would collide, all of them seemingly in the natural order of things, but each playing a concrete role in what would culminate in a miraculous conclusion.”

In addition to reading this essay to understand the context of the “12 Tammuz” redemption, I highly recommend treating yourself to reading the Previous Rebbe’s record of his experiences in prison in a unique memoir first published in the 1950s. In it, you will find true bravery and courage and the ultimate expression of self-sacrifice in the service of Judaism’s holiest goals.

While this episode was a historical trajectory for the entire Chabad movement and by extension the worldwide Jewish community, on a personal note I am keenly aware of how “12 Tammuz” plays a pivotal role in my family history. How my ancestors from both sides of my family managed to preserve their Jewish heritage while enduring the horrors of Stalinist oppression and eventually migrated from behind the Iron Curtain to the free world only due to the historical impact of “12 Tammuz.”

Although none of us can ever live up to the Previous Rebbe’s legendary bravery and sacrifice, none of us are called upon to overcome the enormous challenges he faced. But for the incomparably smaller challenges we do face in any area of life, we ought to absorb the message of “12 Tammuz” and apply the ideas of unflinching faith in G-d and an ironclad determination to preserve our heritage to overcome them with flying colors.

Remember that everything happening in the world right now is happening to bring you to this place at this time to overcome this challenge. And, as Maimonides declared, this may be the one good deed, spoken word, or action that needs to get to tip the scales and bring redemption to the whole world with the coming of Moshiach.

When it all started


This Shabbat will mark 82 years since the Rebbe miraculously arrived in America with his wife Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka from the European Inferno in the summer of 1941. Immediately upon his arrival, the Rebbe was appointed to lead Chabad’s outreach activities and publishing house and, within a decade, unleashed a spiritual revolution across the globe.

This coincided with the Previous Rebbe’s declaration that “Immediate Teshuvah (repentance) will bring immediate redemption.” Based on Maimonides’ teaching “The Torah has already promised that, ultimately, Israel will repent towards the end of exile and will be immediately redeemed,” he declared we entered an era when this will surely happen. During Passover of 1988 the Rebbe reflected on the fact that such urgency was unprecedented in Jewish history. “I myself did not think of it this way until I came to this country,” the Rebbe said.

Clearly, this was a watershed moment in our history. Aside from rejuvenating Jewish observance in a land rife with assimilation and spiritual apathy, the persistent presence of Chabad institutions around the world today is a direct result of what the Rebbe started doing once he arrived in America, all permeated with the urgency of the imminent arrival of Moshiach.

On numerous occasions, he emphasized how this great country is the best place from which such a renaissance could originate.

Here is one example. In 1991, President George Bush wrote the Rebbe a letter of congratulations in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival on American shores. Following is an excerpt of the Rebbe’s response:

Your good wishes, Mr. President, as well as those of the First Lady, are heartily appreciated. I can best reciprocate by invoking G‑d's promise to our Patriarch Abraham, "I will bless them that bless thee."

I welcome especially your remarks, my dear President, as a tribute to the Lubavitch Movement which I am privileged to head. That it has grown and flourished in this country is a testimony to the conducive climate and responsive human nature that combine to ensure that all positive efforts are abundantly fruitful.

By Divine Providence your kind letter was dated on the morrow of the anniversary of the Nation's birthday. It is well to remember that the founders of this Nation considered Independence Day as "a day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to G‑d Al-mighty." By Divine Providence also my arrival in the United States in 1941 coincided with the declaration by Congress that year, making July 4th a legal public holiday.

As we celebrate this special milestone, let us be mindful of the historic freedoms we have in our modern times and utilize them to fill the world with goodness and kindness, with the urgency that Moshiach’s arrival depends on one single good thought, deed or action of any individual.

Stop Complaining

The Rebbe’s correspondence was legendary. There was a time when the amount of mail delivered daily to Chabad World Headquarters in Brooklyn addressed to the Rebbe was exceeded only by the White House. He opened every letter and until the mid-seventies, most responses were sent as formal letters. As the numbers increased, the Rebbe often jotted down a short response on the margins of the letter or on a small note which was then dictated by a secretary to the recipient by phone.

While the original letters were destroyed for obvious reasons, thousands of these handwritten responses were preserved and, although we can only see one side of the conversation, they are a rare treasure of the Rebbe’s saintly wisdom, prophetic vision, and legendary sensitivity and love for every Jew.

Here is a loose translation of the Rebbe’s handwritten response to an individual that a friend shared with me yesterday:

“Thank you for sharing the good news. May you continue to always share good news - unlike your other letters which are filled with complaints (the original Hebrew word is translated literally as “sighs”) - May Heaven protect us - for decades now!! Even though it is publicly known that you succeeded in raising Torah observant children, helped many people etc. etc.”

I assume the recipient of this response was strongly engaged in Jewish life and activism and had a decades-long correspondence with the Rebbe. Without knowing what type of complaints this fellow was writing for years, here the Rebbe is celebrating the fact that he shared some good news and pointed out that he had much more good news in his life to share than complaints. While the stuff he was kvetching about could have been valid issues, focusing on them was not productive at all. And reading between the lines, it seems like many of the complaints resulted from viewing life from the wrong lens.

In this week’s parsha we learn how the Israelites traveled away from Mount Sinai where they had camped for close to a year and headed towards the Promised Land. After three days, people started grumbling about the constant traveling. G-d was angered by their misguided complaint - because the non-stop travel was meant to be a mad dash to reach the Land of Israel as fast as possible - and a terrible plague broke out.

Moses prayed on their behalf, but then they complained about the Manna - the heavenly bread which miraculously nourished them every day. Imagine that! They found problems with the food which tasted like almost anything you desired with no negative side-effects at all. Instead of appreciating the tremendous good in the Manna, they complained they couldn’t taste cucumbers, watermelons and leeks. 

Here’s an important lesson we can learn from this story. Firstly, complaining is a human default setting. Even in the presence of divine miracles it’s possible to view life negatively, so chances are that wherever you find a problem you’ll find a blessing if you dig a bit deeper. (Remember the joke about the optimistic kid and the pony?) And even if you encounter a real problem with no apparent blessing in sight, kvetching never helps. Focus on the many other good things around you, express your thanks and gratitude for the many blessings in your life, and most importantly, do more good things you can be proud of.


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