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Rabbis' Blog

The In-towner

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Two sisters loved their parents dearly. As they grew into adulthood and started families of their own, one sister moved to a larger city and the other started to nest in their hometown. As time passed, their parents came of age and necessitated the assistance of their children. Every day, juggling work, household chores and the various schedules of her own children, would visit her parents for several minutes to prepare them a glass of tea and ensure everything as ok.

The out-of-town daughter, would schedule week long trips, several times a year, to visit her parents. During that week she would be focused 100% to her dear parents, entertaining them and providing for their every need.

While no one can judge the depth and value of their respective love and devotion to their parents, one may try imagine which daughter’s service is more appreciated by the elderly couple.

In this week’s parsha (Pinchas) G-d communicates the way the Jewish people should “provide” for Him. Each morning and afternoon a sheep, purchased from the communal “half shekel” treasury should be offered on the Altar in the Holy Temple on behalf of the nation. This mitzvah is called the “Korban Tamid” – the Consistent Sacrifice. No sacrifice would precede the morning Tamid on the altar, nor was anything offered following the service of the afternoon Tamid.

On Shabbat, festivals and Rosh Chodesh there were additional, more grandiose offerings in honor of the auspicious days, yet the simple one-sheep consistent offering never failed to open and close the Temple service. Even the awesome service of Yom Kippur did not over shadow the Tamid ritual. 365 days a year, no matter the season or weather, as long as the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Tamid sacrifice was never compromised.

Today, in the absence of the Holy Temple, we serve G-d primarily through prayer in the synagogue. There are various prayer liturgies recited on various occasions. The Shabbat and festival liturgies feature many beautiful hymns and poetic prayers. The High Holidays are best known for inspiring recitations and soulful melodies. While these exciting occasions are crucial and all are encouraged to attend and participate, G-d desires daily and consistent interaction with His children.

While the long distance daughter is so appreciated when she comes for an extended and enjoyable visit, the short but daily visits by the in-towner are what truly bring solace and encouragement to the elderly parents.

Set aside a few minutes each day to recite a few prayers and communicate with the divine. Commit yourself to a mitzvah that will be observed daily without fail. A few minutes of Torah study, placing a few coins in the charity box each morning (not on Shabbat and festivals), the options are endless. By incorporating Jewish practice in daily life, one develops an in-towner relationship with G-d.

Proper Priorities

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At the beginning of the daily morning prayers we recite: How pleasing are your tents, O Jacob, your sanctuaries, O Israel. The first to articulate this beautiful passage was none other than the biblical virulent Jew hater Bilaam. In this week’s parsha we learn that the Moabite king Balak, possessed with a misplaced paranoia of the Israelites, hired Bilaam to use his prophetic powers to destroy the Jews through a curse.

Initially, G-d warned Bilaam not to accept the challenge, but when Bilaam insisted, he was notified that he would be allowed to utter only the words G-d will dictate to him. The venture turned out to be an absolute disaster for the enemies of the Jews. The Israelites merited to receive magnificent blessings from the mouths of their most dangerous enemies.

The particular blessing pertaining to the Israelite tents was prompted as a result of Bilaam noticing the unique structure of the Israelite camp. The tribes camped in a specific order and the tents were pitched strategically so that one could not see into his/her neighbor’s home. This refined and aristocratic behavior inspired Bilaam to articulate those words.

It may have been anticipated that a nation that had recently been granted freedom from abject and brutal slavery would not be occupied with such issues as privacy and modesty. Yet it was very clear that after receiving the Torah and being trained in the observance of the mitzvoth we had developed into a dignified and proper society.

Privacy is a fundamental Jewish value. Unfortunately, a common cause of the destruction of many families and relationships is the obsession of “peeking into the neighbor’s window” and competing with the lifestyle of others. Life becomes a frustrating marathon of “keeping up with the Jones’,” a lose of focus on one’s individual blessings and gifts. This may be expressed in the need to keep with the newest trends and fashions despite the financial strain it may cause. Another expression of this malice is the notion that if Mr. X earns X amount each year and donates to charity such a small sum, surely my obligations are met with far less.

Upon realizing that the Jewish lifestyle engenders a lifestyle of privacy where vain social pressures are frowned upon and intense personal improvement and investment is encouraged, Bilaam was inspired to blessing. We therefore repeat these hollowed words each morning to remind us of this vital message. By investing in and nurturing our own home we will surely achieve the greatest potential we possess as individuals, families and communities.

However, there is much to learn from each other. The other’s success should not evoke negative competitiveness, rather motivate us to invest more time, energy and resources to cultivate the best in our own home turf.

Friends, in the past few weeks I have visited communities in Detroit, Santa Fe and New York. Some with greener grass than others. Large impressive shuls and others with less impressive institutions. Each one a reflection of the local investment and involvement.

We in El Paso can do better. We need to appreciate the needs of our community and invest now to properly serve our diverse demographics. Together we can establish a larger and nicer “tent” and “sanctuary” as the pride and joy of our community. Now is the time to prepare the greener grass for ourselves and generations to come.

A Paragon of Jewish Pride and Self Sacrifice

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The life and legacy of Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, o.b.m.

Rabbi Moshe Greenberg was born to his parents Reb Naftalie and Rochel in the spring of 1927 near Kishnev, Moldova. Naftalie was a Shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a mohel and Rochel was very active in the communal charity organiztions. It was a family of five. Zecharya the oldest followed by Moshe, a younger brother Yosef and two sisters Zisel and Chaya.

In the summer of 1941 the Nazis occupied their town. They rounded up the Jews and late one night forced them into a house assuring them that they would return the next morning to kill them. A gentile neighbor opened the door to the house and urged them to flee.

The family ran through the forest for a few days and finally boarded a train traveling east deep within Soviet territory. Due to extreme starvation and disease their mother Rochel did not survive the journey. They reached Tashkent, Uzbekistan together with thousands of Jewish refugees. There they discovered an impressive underground network of Jewish elementary schools and Yeshiva’s under the auspices of the local Chabad community.

The young Moshe enthusiastically pursued his studies in the Chabad Yeshiva and became an ardent Chabad Chossid. Tragically, Reb Naftalie drowned in the river a short time later and the young family was bereft of both parents. At the wars end, the Soviet authorities granted all foreign refugees the opportunity to leave the Soviet Union. This window of opportunity was short lived and by the time Moshe attempted to make the journey, the Iron Curtain was firmly shut.

Life as a Jew in communist Russia was unbearable so a small group of Yeshiva students hired a smuggler to take them across the border. The smuggler pocketed the money and turned them in to the authorities. Thus began a new saga in his life.

The communists interrogated and subjected him to excruciating torture in the hopes of extracting information about other Chasidic activists. No matter the pain and abuse he did not relent to the pressure. He was charged with treason and sentenced to 25 years of harsh labor in the Siberian gulags.

He committed himself to never work on Shabbat and to eat only kosher food no matter the consequences. Failure to work on Shabbat earned him five days of solitary confinement. After two years of stubborn resistance and great suffering an arrangement was made whereby Moshe would go to the work area on Shabbat but would be exempt from actual labor.

In 1951, a few months before Rosh Hashana he was focused on one issue: Where to get hold of a machzor for the High Holidays? Despite the impossible odds, a local Jew loaned a machzor to him on condition that he would copy the entire book by hand and return it before the holiday.

Moshe constructed a large wooden box and crawled into it for a few hours each day. There, hidden from view, he copied the book line by line into a notebook. The laborious and dangerous task was complete within the month – yet one page was missing - Kol Nidrei - the very first prayer recited on Yom Kippur.

As the holiday approached the twenty Jewish prisoners in the camp bribed the guards with cigarettes to allow them to gather in the barrack for services.

With his handwritten prayer book he served as Chazzan (cantor) and recited each prayer, repeated by others in low solemn voices. A week later they met again for the Kol Nidrei services. Unfortunately, none of the worshippers managed to recall all of the words of that prayer from memory.

After nearly seven years of incarceration he and many other political prisoners were released, owing to the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953.

Following his release he married Mrs. Devorah Greenberg (nee Chazan) and was active in the underground network of Jewish education in the Moscow area. In 1967, they were privileged to immigrate from the U.S.S.R. to Israel and settled in Bnei Brak. There they raised a beautiful family of 17. With his newfound religious freedom he did not rest. He established the Chabad Center of Bnei Brak, served as the coordinator of Chabad activities in the city and was the driving force behind numerous initiatives for the promotion of Jewish education and outreach, especially within the Russian immigrant community.

Each year, he would travel to Brooklyn to celebrate the High Holidays in the presence of the Rebbe. He was committed to the Rebbe’s vision and encouraged his children to heed the Rebbe’s call to set up Chabad posts in the most remote and challenging frontiers. In cities such as Anchorage, Alaska; Shanghai, China; El Paso, Texas and Hanover, Germany to mention a few.

On Tammuz 10, 5773 (2013) Rabbi Moshe Greenberg returned his soul to his Maker at the ripe age of 86. During the week of Shiva countless amazing and moving stories were shared of his unassuming greatness and absolute commitment to helping a fellow Jew in need. His legacy lives on in the lives that he has influenced and touched. May his memory be an eternal blessing.

A Life of Sacrifice

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My father, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, of blessed memory, assists a Jew in the mitzvah of Tefillin on the streets of Petach Tikvah, Israel. 

On Shabbat will be third yartzeit of my dear father Rabbi Moshe ben Naftali, of blessed memory. Born in Kaprest, Bessarabia (near Kishinev, Moldova) in the former U.S.S.R. he received his formal Jewish education and training from his father who was a shochet (ritual slaughterer). At the age of 14 he joined the Chabad Yeshiva in Kishinev where he discovered the teachings of Chassidus and became an ardent and life-long disciple of the Lubavitcher Rebbes.

After WWII the Russian government allowed foreign refugees that had escaped the Nazis by fleeing into Russia, to return to their respective homelands. Since many had not survived the war years, many Russian Jews, eager to escape communist religious oppression, created an escape route utilizing the identities of deceased Polish refugees. While the scheme was a success for a while, my father was caught during his journey. At the age of 20 he was sentenced to 25 years of harsh labor in Siberia, (essentially a death sentence), for the heinous crime of attempting to reach a country that would allow him to serve G-d through Torah study and Mitzvah observance.
 
While in Stalin’s “rehabilitation camps” he subsisted on the meager ration of 15 grams of bread, a sugar cube and a small piece of pickeled herring. He stubbornly refused to consume any non-kosher foods. On Passover he would subsist on a few sugar cubes and potato peels for 8 days. But Shabbat presented the greatest challenge for him. After skipping work on the first Shabbat he was placed in solitary confinement for five days. To the amazement of his supervisors he refused to work every subsequent Shabbat, despite the fact that he was spending 5 days in solitary confinement each week as a result. This earned him the respect of several influential prisoners and after two years of excruciating sacrifice a an agreement was reached allowing him to show up to the work site without actually working the entire day.
 
Following Stalin's death, many political prisoners were granted freedom. My father was released seven years into his sentence. Although my father rarely spoke of his incarceration, it was those Jewish victories that he would proudly share with the family. What gave him the strength to endure so much for the sake of his Judaism when his future was so bleak?
 
This week’s parsha is called “Chukat”. There are three categories of mitzvoth: Mispatim (Laws) – logical rules of conduct that any decent human society would deem necessary. Eidut (Testimonies) – mitzvoth that serve to remind us of the greatness of G-d and our miraculous history, such as Shabbat the holidays, Tefillin etc. Chukim (Statutes) – Laws that have no rationale, such as kosher, ritual purity and impurity etc.
 
Whereas the fulfillment of the mishpatim and eidut may be motivated by intelligent or emotional appreciation, the observance of chukim is clearly inspired by an ironclad commitment to fulfilling the will of G-d, under all circumstances. The Rebbe clarifies, that this transcendental commitment is crucial in the observance of every mitzvah. If one is merely intellectually motivated to abstain from theft, he or she may find ways to rationalize an exception in various scenarios. When the prohibition of theft is mitzvah from G-d, then no excuse will work.
 
This perspective allows us not to be distracted by the fact that 3,000 years have passed since we received the Torah and Mitzvoth. Shabbat, Kosher and family purity are as relevant in the 2016 as in 1,000 BCE. This is the will of G-d and as loyal children we fulfill His every wish even when the stakes are so high and the sacrifice so great. By doing so we develop a deeper relationship each time.
 
My father’s sacrifice to observe Shabbat and Kosher in the Siberian gulags was not the result of religious calculation. It was a labor of love that continued throughout his life. May his memory be a blessing for us all and may he continue to derive much nachas from all of his descendants.

May I Pray On Your Behalf?

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This Shabbat I will be in New York in observance of the Rebbe’s 22nd yartzeit. I would like to share my thoughts with regard to this auspicious day.

Many question the need for a Tzaddik (saintly person) to pray and to intercede by G-d on their behalf. The mystery grows when after the passing of the Tzaddik we continue to visit the resting place to pray and submit petitions for blessing. About the Rebbe in particular, many wonder why he was not interred in Israel, as has been done for many great Jewish leaders and sages throughout history.

This week I was privileged to participate in the wedding of the daughter of the Chabad Rabbi and Rebbetzin of Santa Fe, NM. It was a beautiful and joyous affair and I wish the young couple a blessed and happy life together. They should merit to continue the legacy of their illustrious family to be standard bearers of the Rebbe’s message of unconditional love for Judaism and Jews everywhere.

In the 322 miles from El Paso to Santa Fe there are four beautiful and vibrant Chabad Centers catering to the spiritual needs of all Jews regardless of their background. El Paso, Las Cruces, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The driving force behind these miraculous outposts of Jewish joy is the Rebbe. In his firm belief that every Jew truly desires a deeper connection with Judaism, the Rebbe empowered his disciples to sacrifice all to deliver Judaism with a smile to every frontier no matter how remote. It should be available to everyone.

At Sinai we received the Torah from G-d through Moses. He was the first tzaddik to serve in the role of a translucent conduit between G-d and the people. He was not only a teacher, he successfully served as their staunchest advocate even when they were in the most troubling circumstances religiously and spiritually. This crucial role was filled by the great leaders in each generation.

In our times, the Rebbe inspired a renaissance of Jewish observance and education, but more importantly was known to be the quintessential advocate on our behalf. Daily he received thousands of petitions for prayer and blessing and patiently addressed each one. This reality continues today as well. The diverse crowd that can be found at the Ohel (the Rebbe’s holy resting place in Queens, NY) at any hour of the day or night bears testimony to the fact that we are keenly aware that the Rebbe continues to inspire our path forward and serves as our tireless advocate on high.

This is why the Rebbe chose to be interred in the Diaspora. Maritime law dictates that the captain of a ship leaves last. As Am Yisrael continues to ride the stormy seas of exile, the Rebbe continues to serve as our captain and cannot afford the luxury of burial in the Holy Land.

Therefore, in observance of the Rebbe’s yartzeit I will be at the Ohel to pray on behalf of my family and the Jewish community of El Paso. I will report on the great strides we have made as a community over the past three decades and request a special blessing that we succeed in growing our capacity to serve every Jew in the region.

It will be a pleasure and honor for me to deliver petitions of blessing on your behalf or to mention your name in my personal petition. Please email [email protected] to be mentioned in prayer on this auspicious day at such a holy place.

Edit That Sentence

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Throughout life we always faced with the challenge of change. There may be various forces from within or without calling upon us to alter the course of routine. Naturally a person is comfortable with the familiar and therefore resistant to and even fearful of change that may actually be for the better.

At such a juncture one will ask “Should I change? Is it worth it?” This will inevitably result in retaining the status quo. To overcome this paralysis one needs to simply edit one word of the sentence. The question should be “How can I change?”

In this week’s parsha we learn of the tragic story of the Israelite spies entrusted with a historic mission: to scout out the land of Israel in preparation of their entry and conquest of the land. The realization of the long anticipated promise of G-d to the patriarchs that their progeny will inherit the Holy Land. Alas, the spies failed miserably and returned with a report that caused a hysteria of dissent in the Israelite camp and had everyone wailing in mourning for a full night.

They shared an extremely negative impression of the land and its inhabitants. Cities so fortified that were impossible to penetrate and mighty warriors so frighteningly large that the spies felt like grasshoppers in their sight. The verdict was clear: An attempt to enter the land was certain suicide.

The fallout of their behavior was severe. The entire generation was destined never to enter the land they had rejected so harshly and inheritance of the Promised Land would take only forty years later. The night of wailing was the Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) and destined by G-d as a day of tragedy and mourning in every generation.

The ten spies who were guilty of inciting the people against G-d, died in a terrible fashion shortly after. A disturbing ending to a mission undertaken by some of the greatest and brightest of our nation at the time.

Whereas the spies had indeed accomplished their mission, their blunder was in a few extra sentences of their report. Moses instructed them to gather vital intelligence about the terrain and the enemy so that proper plans can be made for the upcoming invasion. This they accomplished to highest standard. Yet they overstepped their boundaries by offering a prognosis: It cannot be done. This was their grave mistake with tragic repercussions for generations.

The episode of the spies is ongoing, and we have the opportunity to alter the course of this narrative. When faced with the opportunity to do a mitzvah, to help a fellow or to contribute to the community, we must ask ourselves how to do it and not should it be done. We have been endowed with gifts beyond our comprehension and it is within our power to tap into our divine energy with the proper perspective of “how”.

Let us change our lexicon and commit ourselves to do all that we can to strengthen and cultivate our beautiful local Jewish community.

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