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Rabbis' Blog

Increasing the Light Every Day!

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This year Chanukah there was light in El Paso! Every Jewish household received The El Paso Chabad Times Chanukah edition which included a holiday guide and much Chanukah inspiration. Public menorah displays were set up at the Sunland Park Mall, Cielo Vista Mall and The Outlet Shoppes. The traditional giant Menorah in front of the Chabad House was illuminated each night no matter the weather. A menorah on the corner of Westwind Drive and a car menorah paraded around town.

The message of Chanukah reached the greater El Paso via the media in various formats. Click here for media links.

Every night of Chanukah was a time to celebrate. The first night with a falafel bar; Night number four with a grand concert and extravaganza (see photos below); Each night with the public menorah lighting at Chabad; Special Chanukah parties for the senior communities at The Monte Vista and Royal Estates; and a special pre-Chanukah visit to the La Tuna federal prison.

CGI Winter Camp debuted this year, providing a Chanukah experience on steroids for over 20 campers!

And we are not done yet! You are all invited to join us for the grand Chanukah finale on Saturday Night at 7:30pm for Havdalah and a Soup Bar as we kindle all eight flames on the Menorah.  Click here for details.

Yes, my friends, there was light in El Paso this Chanukah!

In Judaism there are three mitzvoth with candles. The kindling of the seven branched Menorah in the Holy Temple as part of the daily service, the Shabbat candles kindled by the woman of the home before Shabbat and the eight Chanukah lights.

While all three represent addition in light, there is something unique about Chanukah. A woman lights the same amount of Shabbat candles each week, within the home and specifically before sunset. The Temple candles always numbered seven and were lit during the day as well in the inner sanctum of the Temple. Chanukah candles must be lit after sunset, at the doorway (representing its relevance to the outdoors) and their number is constantly increased.

This is the message of Chanukah: Darkness can be jarring and uninviting. The way to battle it is not by condemnation rather by 1) brining the light outside 2) specifically when the darkness is most acute and 3) increasing our efforts on a daily basis.

This is the story the Chanukah flames share and the lesson we take with us as we forge ahead into the rest of winter energized to illuminate every area of our influence. We have two more lights to go, let’s do this!

Yes, Our Behavior Does Matter to G-d!

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We are all excited for Chanukah, probably the most popular Jewish holiday in America. Lighting candles, eating latkes, spinning dreidels and receiving gifts and Chanukah gelt is a fine way to spend eight days at the beginning of winter. So, what is the deal with lighting candles on Chanukah?

The mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles was instituted to ensure that the Shabbat dinner should be a pleasant affair and enhance family peace and tranquility. It also serves as an appropriate way of welcoming the Shabbat and is primarily the obligation of the woman of the home.

The kindling of the Chanukah candles, on the other hand, is the core of the entire holiday! If one were to only light the candles each night as prescribed in Jewish law and not taste even one latke – he/she has observed Chanukah 100%.

The struggle between the Maccabees and the Greeks was not the typical conflict between colonizers and natives. The presence of a foreign power in Israel during that time period was not necessarily viewed as an existential threat to the Jewish community. There was a deep theological disagreement that pitted the two nations against each other as bitter enemies.

The Greek philosophy maintained that although G-d certainly created the world, the constant day to day realities of this universe are not His concern. Man is alive on planet earth to enjoy the pleasures it provides and the Creator has no interest in human behavior. They worshipped beauty, physical strength and wealth.

Judaism teaches that creation has a purpose that was communicated to us by G-d. Humanity was placed in this world with the obligation to perfect it that it should be capable of reflecting the divine. This is accomplished through behavior that is prescribed in the divine blueprint of creation – the Torah. Everything we do makes a difference to G-d and when we live life according to His wishes we forge a bond with Him. This is the translation of the word “mitzvah” -  connection.

The Jewish perspective was anathema to the Greeks – and they viewed the Jewish rejection as the ultimate referendum of their Weltanschauung – which was unbearable. So They resorted to persecution and thousands of Jews sacrificed their lives as a result. The Maccabees selflessly battled the Greeks for the preservation of the Jewish type of relationship between G-d and creation.

G-d reciprocated their sacrifice by gifting them the miracle of the oil. Although no lives were in danger and the brightly lit menorah played no role in the military victory – it was G-d’s way of sending the message that the Maccabees were on target. Your actions DO make a difference to Me and I thank you for preserving our relationship.

So when you gather around the menorah on Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) and recite the proper blessings and sing the traditional songs, be mindful of the message of the Chanukah lights. Each mitzvah that we do, every word of Torah we learn and every prayer we recite is precious to G-d. This is the true meaning of the blessing “He has wrought miracles for our ancestors in those days and in our time.” Just as a jug of pure olive oil was found in the darkest of times – the eternal “jug of pure olive oil” – the essential bond of a Jew with G-d – remains intact with each and every one of us to this day.

Making the Minyan

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Every Thursday at 7am, we have Shacharit services at Chabad. The truth is, we usually do not have a minyan in attendance. But this week, the miracle occurred and there was a full minyan throughout the service. We read the Torah and recited all the relevant prayers in the presence of a minyan. Afterwards everyone went on their way with an extra jump in their step. We made the minyan!

What is it about having a minyan by services that causes much excitement in every community? In every synagogue there is satisfaction when ten bar mitzvah aged men come together to pray and disappointment when the magic number is not reached. Especially in a small community, the joy of making it is magnified.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the birth of Binyamin, the final son of Yaakov. Immediately following his birth, the Torah counts the twelve tribes of Israel for the first time. Regardless of the fact that Binyamin was a newborn, the tribe of Israel were now complete.

When Yaakov’s family migrated to the land of Egypt to join Joseph, they were meant to be a family of 70 souls to counterbalance the influence of the 70 nations. Leaving Canaan, they were 69 and upon reaching the gates of Egypt Yocheved was born bringing the total Jewish population to 70. Only then were they able to accomplish their mission in relocating to Egypt. She was no more than a newborn and yet an integral part of the sum total.

There can be room of nine sages gathering to pray, but the arrival of a 13-year-old ignorant Jewish teenager will drastically change the dynamic of the prayer of these saintly men. Jewish perfection necessitates everyone’s participation.

Perfection is reached only through adversity. Yaakov succeeded in building the family of twelve tribes only in the face of the challenges of Lavan and Eisav. The birth of the Jewish nation evolved from a reality of harsh slavery. And in small communities, gathering a minyan is a feat accomplished only through overcoming many challenges.

There is the personal challenge each participant may have. Trust me, it’s hard to show up every time when having a minyan is uncertain. Then there may be external pressures of individuals that discourage participation in regular services. They have no malicious intension, but the effects can be real.

When despite all the challenges the minyan comes together – the satisfaction is great and the joy is palpable. Ten individuals beat the odds and made it happen.

We must always be aware that our collective strength is dependent on every individual.

The Golden Standard of Jewish Education

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Parents once came to the Rabbi with their 5-year old daughter to ask for advice in providing her with the best Jewish education. “I’m sorry”, replied the Rabbi. “You are six years too late”.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the first Jewish grandchild embarking on a journey to find a wife and to start a family. Yitzchak instructed Yaakov not to choose a wife from the local Cannanite families, rather he should travel to Charan and seek out a wife from the family of Lavan.

There is a big contrast between these two locations. Canaan was the land Avraham had lived in for 100 years and operated the greatest outreach operation to date, inspiring the world with the knowledge of G-d. It was the current domain under the influence of Yitzchak and the academies of Shem and Ever, where Yaakov had studied for decades, were located there as well. This was definitely the ideal place for Yaakov to choose to raise a family in the ways of G-d.

Charan on the other hand was a land of utter corruption and moral decay. The citizens were lazy cheats and thieves and Lavan held the honorary title of chief swindler. Was Yaakov expected to raise a family in this decrepit environment?

Above the reality of our physical world there are multitudes of spiritual galaxies populated by an infinite amount of heavenly angels. Their existence is filled with the knowledge of G-d and His service with no deviation whatsoever. However, when it came time for the Torah to be granted to a race of creatures, it was not bequeathed to the angels in heaven. Rather to physical mortals on planet Earth.

Why so? Surely the Torah would be observed in the greatest way possible in the realm of the angels. There is no risk of laziness, rebellion or malicious misinterpretation. By giving it to human beings with the power of free choice, it stands a high risk of being rejected or worse.

The answer is simple and straightforward. The true character of children is not determined by their behavior under the dedicated supervision of their parents, rather by the way they live up to their standards when living independently. When Mom and Dad are not around, it becomes clear what the child’s priorities are.

Therefore, the Torah was given to humans in this world, a reality far removed from constant G-dly awareness to prove that flesh and blood empowered with free choice would choose to follow the Torah. Dutiful angels are no big deal.

This is the lesson we learn from Yaakov raising his family in Charan of all places. The first Jewish family set the standard for Jewish education for all time. One does not need to be in a large Jewish community, saturated with synagogues, schools and kosher restaurants to succeed in imparting our glorious heritage to the next generation. Even a single family in a spiritual desert can and must thrive in their Jewishness just as the family of Yaakov did in the G-d forsaken land of Charan.

Jewish education in the small communities is the golden standard of our forefather Yaakov.

 

We Are All the Same

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I returned from an extended weekend packed with inspiration to last a year. For four days, 4,000 Chabad Rabbis gathered at Lubavitch Headquarters to recharge our spiritual batteries to energize the Jewish world. We shared ideas, learned from each other’s experiences and simply had a good time catching up with friends and developing new friendships colleagues from around the world.

There was Rabbi Leiter from Safed, Israel. He runs an institution called Ascent. Each Shabbat they host three groups: soldiers of the IDF, Hebrew speaking guests and English speaking guests. The Chabad Rabbi to Paraguay services all 800 Jews in the country. I met the emissary to Cholon, Israel and many others.

The intriguing part of the whole experience was that notwithstanding the fact that we all come from so many different locations – we are basically all the same. The obvious common denominator is our dress code. (Good luck finding myself or any other Rabbi you know in the iconic annual group photo we posed for in front of HQ – 770 Eastern Parkway. I’m the guy in the suit, hat and glasses…) But our commonalities are much deeper. We share the same goal and the same mission. To bring living Judaism to every Jew and the awareness of G-d to every corner of the earth.

Sounds boring?

A Jew once mentioned to the Rebbe that he is an independent thinker. The Rebbe replied that this was objectively impossible. One is not born in a vacuum. From birth a child absorbs the sights and smells of his or her surroundings and attitudes, mannerisms and passions (positive or negative) are developed accordingly. (Incidentally, this is the rationale for the obligation for one to give charity in their home town. Your home village gave you so much, it is imperative to give back.)

This week’s parsha opens with a puzzling redundancy. “These are the chronicles of Yitzchak the son of Avraham – Avraham fathered Yitzchak”. If Yitzchak is the son of Avraham, then surely Avraham fathered him! Our sages explain that a miraculous phenomenon is being conveyed: Yitzchak was proud to call Avraham his father and Avraham was proud to call Yitzchak his son. Despite the 100-year age difference between them, they were one of the same brand. They shared the same belief and calling in life. This is a truly healthy family. The aging generation communicates with the youngsters and the youngsters do not relegate the ideas of grandparents to ancient history. On the contrary, they absorb the message and carry it on proudly to the future.

This is the amazing dynamic of the annual Convention of Emissaries. Emissaries well into their eighties mingle amongst the millennials and they are the very same. We are all committed to furthering the Rebbe’s agenda to reach every Jew with unconditional love and acceptance in the furthest corners of our universe. And this year we have reached the milestone of having a permanent Chabad presence in every state with the establishment of Chabad Lubavitch in South Dakota.

In truth, this is a reflection of the reality of Am Yisrael. No matter the location – a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. We are all the same.

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