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Rabbis' Blog

The Debate of Staffs

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I once asked a professional magician if he can advise me of which numbers to play in the next lottery. Can you guess his response?

There are tzaddikim - righteous people that are capable of performing nature defying miracles and there are magicians that can manipulate the natural order as well. The difference between them is that spiritual giants affect positive change through their prayers and magicians are good for entertainment.

In this week's parsha we read about the epic showdown between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses relayed G-d's message that the Israelites immediately be released from Egyptian slavery and Pharaoh mockingly refused.

In response, Moses instructed Aharon to throw down his staff to the floor and it transformed into a snake. Pharaoh was the least bit impressed and he instructed his numerous sorcerers to do the same, until the entire room was filled with slithering snakes. For some time the magical powers of Egypt seemed capable of competing with a divine miracle.

But then, Aharon's snake returned to its former self of a staff - and then proceeded to swallow the staffs of the sorcerers that moments ago had been slithering snakes!

This staff/snake show was the crux of the debate between Moses and Pharaoh. A staff represents authority. Pharaoh believed that although G-d is the creator of the universe, it is beneath His dignity to be involved in the day to day realities of this world and so the relevant power was Pharaoh - whose icon was a snake. As such, all decisions regarding the economy and the welfare of his subjects were within his control alone.

Moses illustrated to Pharaoh that this approach is a grave error. G-d is in control of every aspect of creation at all times. While the constancy of nature may dull our awareness of this truth, G-d is capable of disrupting the natural routine as a reminder to all mortals where the true power is to be found. G-d's authority (staff) swallows the authority (staffs) of the Egyptians.

Yes, while a sorcerer or magician can make optical illusions and manipulate our sense of reality, they do not provide solutions to real problems. At all times we need to be aware that G-d is the source of everything and in times of trouble we turn to Him for help and when things are great we need to joyfully express our thanks to Him alone.

A New President

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Greetings from the East Coast! Chani and I express much gratitude to Hashem for the wonderful blessing of seeing our daughter Rochel marry her wonderful and smart husband Abi. We thank you all for participating in the joyous occasion of their wedding and we look forward to celebrating together for many years to come.

As the wedding celebration continues through the weekend, we are mindful of the national celebration of Inauguration Day in America. One of the cornerstones of the democracy we are blessed to live in, the peaceful transition of power is a cause for joyful reflection. As a “Kingdom of Kindness” with a divine mandate to bring justice and morality to the entire world, it is invigorating to see the system work.

Yet there will always be one side that is disappointed with the dynamics of the event. Losing an election is upsetting and what does Judaism teach us in this regard? Our sages caution in Pirkei Avot “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, men would swallow one another alive.” Even a disastrous government is much better than no government. We always count our blessings.

In this week’s parsha G-d communicates to Moshe His desire that he be the messenger for redemption. Moshe’s first rendezvous with the divine is in the setting of a burning - yet unconsumed - thorn bush. This brought powerful context to the mission at hand. G-d was communicating an important message to the oppressed and enslaved children of Israel.

1) Throughout all these years of suffering G-d is suffering together with them (as indicated by the thorns). The same is true about all subsequent exiles as well. 2) No matter the challenges the Jewish people currently face or will experience in the future – they will never disappear (as indicated by the miraculous fact that the bush remained unconsumed).

As a Jewish nation, we have witnessed the long twists and turns of the history of civilization. To put it mildly, we have been around the block a few times. Throughout, we have learned to pray for the welfare of our host countries at all times.

May the new president be a true advocate for the American people and a defender of or brethren in the Land of Israel. And may he succeed in leading the United States of America to new heights in all areas of concern: Our economy and the state of education with an emphasis on morality and kindness.

The Jewish Blessing

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It is with much gratitude to Hashem for all of His kindness that Chani and I look forward to the wedding of our dear daughter Rochel to her wonderful groom Abi. May they merit to build a home upon the foundations of Torah and Mitzvot, illuminated by the teachings of Chassidus and the guidance of the Rebbe. An open and welcoming home that shall serve as a beacon of light for all.

Parents naturally wish to bless their children with everything, all the time. However, no one is interested in hearing long and detailed laundry lists of blessings – all the time. It is important to distill all the love and best wishes into a few concise and meaningful words. How does one do that?

In parshat Vayechi Yosef brings his two sons Menashe and Efraim to his father Yaakov to receive his blessing before he passes away. The short blessing they receive links them to Jewish posterity for all times. "Whenever Jews will bless their children they will wish them to be as Efraim and Menashe." These two children will serve as the role model for Jewish children forever.

Efraim and Menashe were very dear to Yaakov since they were born in a foreign land, far away from the holy and spiritual environment of the House of Yaakov in Israel and nevertheless developed into pious and committed Jews. They serve as an eternal testament that the ideals and morals of Judaism can be transmitted to the next generation regardless of the staggering odds due to external circumstances. Jewish education is possible everywhere.

Upon deeper reflection on this blessing, we find something strange. Menashe was the firstborn and yet Yaakov mentions Efraim first. Moreover, Yosef presented his two sons to Yaakov by placing Menashe to Yaakov's right and Efraim to his left with the intention that Yaakov place his right hand on the head of the first-born Menashe. To his shock, Yaakov crosses his arms, placing his right hand on Efraim's head. Yosef insists that the right hand be placed on Menashe's head due to his first-born status. Yaakov refuses saying, "I know, my son, I know; he too will become a people, and he too will be great. But his younger brother will be greater than he, and his children['s fame] will fill the nations."

Although the progeny of both of them will accomplish great things, the quality of the deeds of Yehoshua Bin Nun - the grandson of Efraim - will outshine them all.

The disagreement between Yaakov and Yosef was essentially the debate of quantity versus quality. Upon entering the Land of Israel the tribe of Menashe numbered more than 50,000 strong whereas the tribe of Efraim numbered approximately 32,000 men. Yosef believed that quantity is the defining factor in nurturing a nation. The more members you have on the team the greater chance of them succeeding in the collective mission.

However, Yaakov determined that quality is of paramount importance. No matter our population size we will always be in the minority. Jewish vibrancy and continuity depends primarily on the integrity and quality of our commitment to Torah study and Mitzvah observance. Therefore, the quintessential Jewish blessing places Efraim before Menashe.

This is our blessing to Rochel and Abi. As you embark on this new and shared journey in your lives, may you build and nurture your home with solid quality. A home of warmth, love, mutual respect and an ironclad commitment to serve as the Rebbe's messengers to bring the light of Torah and Chassidus to your fellow Jews and to be an inspiration to all.

Is It Any of Your Business?

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Tourists to Israel are often bemused by a peculiar phenomenon. People are constantly meddling into the affairs of total strangers. “Why are you not wearing a coat? It’s freezing outside!” “Your baby is not sitting well in that stroller!” “Why did you come so late to the airport? You almost missed your flight!”

Throughout the world such behavior is considered rude and intrusive, whereas in Israel it is a way of life. The same can be said about the synagogue culture. Congregants often share unsolicited advice with others or comment on their clothing and whatnot. It seems to be a Jewish thing. From where does this genetic attitude come from?

In Parshat Vayigash we read about the dramatic climax of the saga of Joseph and his brothers. Sold into slavery as a teenager, Divine providence brings him to the pinnacle of power in Egypt. During the terrible famine years, all of civilization came to Egypt to purchase food that Yoseph had stored during the years of plenty, and the sons of Jacob were no exception.

Yoseph, unrecognizable to his brothers due to the 22 years of separation, accuses them of espionage and demands that they return with their younger brother Binyamin. Yaakov reluctantly allows Binyamin to join the brothers on their return trip to Egypt and Yoseph arranges that he be framed of thievery. Binyamin is condemned to remain in Egypt as a slave while the rest are free to return home.

Yehudah alone confronts Yoseph – the most powerful man in the world at the time – and demands that he remain as a slave in exchange for Binyamin’s release. The showdown between the two warriors is fierce and Yoseph wonders aloud why only Yehudah is creating such a tumult to save Binyamin. “I have assumed sole responsibility for the lad,” Yehudah declares. “I cannot return to my father without him!”

This was a watershed moment in Jewish history. Yehudah was the first to display the eternal responsibility we have for each other - to the point of self sacrifice. As Jews we have no right to concern ourselves only with our own personal issues. We must ensure that the needs of our entire community are met. Indeed, in all Jewish communities there are charity funds, free loan societies, committees and volunteer groups that look out for the wellbeing of the less fortunate. Whether it is a material deficiency or a spiritual and religious void it is our responsibility to do something about it.

This is why we mix into each other’s business, because we naturally care. It may be awkward and annoying at times, but the inconvenience is well worth it. Much better than living alone in the world.

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