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Rabbis' Blog

Jews are a Worldly People

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Many wonder why the Torah opens with the story of creation. Since the Torah serves as a religious guide book, it would be appropriate to begin with the first mitzvah communicated to Moshe on the eve of the redemption from Egypt - the birth of the Jewish nation.

This question is so troubling that Rashi, the 12th century sage Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, addresses it in the first entry of his authoritative commentary on the Torah. Seemingly the first book of the Torah, Bereishis, is out of place.

Equally perplexing is the closing statement of this week’s parsha and the entire book of Bereishis: Yosef passed away and the Egyptians took his body hostage by sinking it in the Nile River. Quite a sad and tragic ending, uncharacteristic of Torah literature which emphasizes the need to end on a positive note.

Torah is not just a book of laws. It is the divine blueprint of creation and the eternal guidebook to Jewish life. The purpose of Torah study and Mitzvah observance is not to isolate a small tribe from society, but rather to empower the tiny Jewish nation to be an example and inspiration to all of humanity.

The lives of our forefathers, recorded in the book of Bereishis serve as the prototype of this ideal. Avraham single handedly promoted the awareness of G-d by setting up a free luxury hotel at the crossroads of civilization. Yitzchak illustrated the ability to find life-giving waters in barren deserts and forged a long-lasting alliance with the local king. Yaakov successfully raised a devout family in the spiritual wastelands of Charan.

Yosef eclipsed his ancestors in achieving this goal. Alone as a slave in a corrupt country, faced with unprecedented moral challenges, slandered and imprisoned on false charges, he never ceased to be a divine inspiration to all. He attributed his eventual rise to power in Egypt to the work of G-d so convincingly, that even Pharaoh was obliged to acknowledge the Creator.

His influence was so great that during his and his brother's lifetimes, their family was respected and admired by the hedonistic and idolatrous Egyptians. Yosef’s passing marked the twilight of the good times and the onset of the dark era of slavery. Nevertheless, he promised the fledgling Abrahamic family that redemption will eventually come, since this exile was the preparation for the revelation at Sinai and inheriting the Holy Land.

This is the overarching message of Bereishis, thus beginning with creation and concluding with Egypt's desire to keep Yosef indefinitely. Judaism is not the product of strange esoterics hiding out in caves nor does it flourish in spiritual isolation. Living a Torah true life empowers the Jew to engage with the world and to be a shining light of divine awareness, moral clarity and care for another.

As we celebrate the conclusion of this foundational book, let us be mindful of our abilities and embrace our responsibilities to the world with confidence and joy.

 

Instantaneous Transformation

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The dramatic moment arrived. Yosef managed to manipulate his brothers into a scenario reminiscent of his tragic sale 22 years earlier. Posing as a tyrannical Egyptian viceroy demanding to keep the youngest brother as a slave, he assured them that there would be no problems henceforth and they should return home in peace.

Led by Yehudah, the brothers heroically prepared to battle the entire country to save their brother Binyamin from slavery and a painful separation from Yaakov. Their repentance for their previous error was complete and Yosef pulled the curtains on the show by revealing his real identity to them. “I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?” he exclaimed tearfully.

Before they could overcome their shock and shame, he urged them to view the past in a positive light and quickly share the good news with Yaakov that he is still alive. Tell him to “come down to me; do not tarry!”

One can easily appreciate Yosef’s concern for his father and his fervent wish that he be liberated from his unbearable suffering as quickly as possible. If so, why did he not send a message to his father earlier about his whereabouts? He had been viceroy of Egypt for nine years by now, was it so difficult to send a message? If it could wait nine years, what was the rush now?

Even more perplexing is the fact that Yosef did not immediately travel to his father in person so that the reunion occur as early as possible.

Yosef explained to his brothers that the tragic circumstances that brought him to Egypt were part of a divine plan so that he rise to power in Egypt. He had a divine mission to sustain all of civilization during the terrible famine by presiding over the sale of provisions that had been stored during the seven years of plenty. As long as the world was coming to Egypt for food, Yosef had the divine obligation to remain there to execute his duties.

He also understood that the painful separation from his father was Divine providence, as a reflection of the twenty-two years Yaakov was away from his father Yitzchak. Now that the twenty-two years were over, there was no need for Yaakov to mourn a moment longer.

The lessons of this story resonate today. For close to 2,000 years we are missing the divine reality of a functioning Holy Temple in which G-d’s presence is revealed in a permanent way. It is imperative to know two things. As long as we are still in Exile, we have a divine mission we cannot forsake. And as soon as the mission is complete, and the time of “separation” has ended, our reality will be transformed immediately - without a moment’s tarry.

Let us get the mission done by increasing our Torah study and Mitzvah observance and we will surely merit the arrival of Moshiach right away!

P.S. Chanukah with Chabad was amazing! Photo albums of the various events will be available online next week. Here are several links about Chanukah in El Paso this year. Enjoy!

El Paso Times: Opinion by Rabbi Levi Greenberg

KVIA Channel 7: Chanukah Interview with Rabbi Levi Greenberg and Menachem Greenberg

El Paso Times: Photos of First Night Menorah Lighting

KTSM Channel 9: Chanukah Playland

El Diario de El Paso: Chanukah Playland

KTEP 88.5: Chanukah Interview with Dennis Woo

The True Story of Life

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Civilization was in the throes of a miserable famine and the ten sons of Yaakov traveled to Egypt to purchase food like everyone else. To their surprise and ultimate chagrin, they were singled out from the multitude of international customers and summoned to appear before the viceroy.

After prostrating themselves in the presence of royalty the viceroy inquired after their families in Canaan. The interview took on an intimate nature and the closest guarded secrets of the family were divulged. Unwittingly they revealed that there was a younger brother at home and a brother that went missing years before.

To their astonishment and great distress, the viceroy accused them of espionage and arrested them on the spot. He presented them with an impossible ultimatum: To prove their innocence, nine of them would be held hostage until their youngest brother was brought to Egypt.

The brothers faced a libel of epic proportions. Nothing of their behavior warranted special attention, let alone such a preposterous accusation and the idea that Binyamin coming to Egypt would prove their innocence seemed downright silly. They were also cognizant of the fact that their grandparents Avraham and Sarah faced a similar challenge in Egypt when they arrived there during a famine.

Nevertheless, they did not attribute their troubles to the pathetic penchant of Egyptian monarchs to harass Hebrews. Rather, they understood that everything is orchestrated by G-d and surely their current problems were the result of an error that needed correction. A thorough soul searching determined that the tragic sale of Yosef that had occurred 21 years earlier was the single sin they had yet to correct.

They said to one another, “We are indeed guilty regarding our brother, for we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we did not listen. That is why this misfortune has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21) Their verbal declaration of guilt was the crucial process of Teshuvah (repentance) that paved the way for their salvation.

Tyrannical accusations and persecution are beside the point. The relationship with the One pulling the strings from Above makes all the difference.

The Maccabees at the time of the Chanukah story understood this same truth. The Assyrian Greek empire did not successfully conquer Israel by dint of their military prowess - and training an army comparable in size and strength would accomplish nothing. The terrible oppression of the time was a reflection of a divine reality and overcoming the enemy would be the result of genuine self-sacrifice.

We celebrate the victory of the few over the many and the righteous over the wicked, by kindling flames of light and warmth in increasing measure. It is crucial to consistently grow in our Torah study and Mitzvah observance, thus introducing more divine light to the world. By focusing on the true dynamics of reality we experience miracles in our personal lives and in the world at large.

Celebrating the Big Picture

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Yosef was estranged from his brothers for several reasons but nothing agitated them more than the fact that his dreams foretold his ultimate rise to power and that they would all bow to him. The tensions came to a boiling point when the brothers attempted to kill him and ultimately sold him into slavery.

 

Thus began a painful saga in the history of Yaakov’s family. Yaakov mourned inconsolably, the brothers were wracked with guilt and Yosef was subjected to a life of servitude, imprisonment and rejection.

 

Fascinatingly, Yosef himself did not process these terrible events as a punishment or the result of his brothers’ revenge. He understood that this was divinely orchestrated so that he be put in the right place at the right time to do something extraordinary.

This becomes increasingly clear as we follow Yosef during this painful 22 year separation. During his tenure as a slave to Potiphar, a high ranking Egyptian minister, he was promoted to manager of the estate. Yosef continuously attributed his success to G-d, that his pagan Egyptian master was compelled to recognize this truth.

After being falsely accused of immorality and unjustly sentenced to prison, Yosef continued to provide divine inspiration to all. Ultimately he was instated as the viceroy of Egypt, assuming control over the entire country and by extension all civilization.

The greatest expression of Yosef’s firm belief and pristine understanding that his tragic circumstances were part of a greater plan can be found in the first message he tells his brothers during their emotional reunion.

“Do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me before you... You did not send me here, but G-d, and He made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord over all his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt.”

Today, (Thursday, December 7) the 19th of Kislev, marks 219 years since the liberation of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad (known as the Alter Rebbe) from Czarist prison. His opponents attempted to destroy the newly established Chabad movement by arranging his arrest on false charges of high treason. Truth prevailed and the Rebbe was miraculously released 53 days later on the 19th of Kislev.

The Alter Rebbe understood that his arrest was the result of a heavenly debate whether Chassidus should be revealed on a large scale. The circumstances of his release were such that the truth of Chassidus was acknowledged by the highest echelons of the gentile government, thus allowing for its dissemination on an unprecedented level. It was all part of the divine plan.

Chassidus is the innermost dimension of Torah which allows us to tap into the strength of our inner selves. By learning it each day, we open our hearts and minds to discover the pathway to redemption for ourselves and the entire world. Lechaim!

Click here to learn more about 19 Kislev.

 

Jewish Double Identity

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Having survived a potentially fatal encounter with Lavan, Yaakov traveled closer to to his homeland anticipating the long awaited reunion with his parents. His brother Eisav did not allow for such a smooth transition and marched towards him with an army of 400 men to exact his long overdue revenge for the blessings he felt were rightfully his.

Distressed by the news, Yaakov prepared for the inevitable encounter by appeasing his angry brother with a large gift, developing a battle plan and offering an impassioned prayer to G-d. The night before the expected showdown, after transporting his family across the Yabok River, he was assaulted by an angel and an epic wrestling match ensued.

Although the struggle played out in a physical reality, it was really a clash of G-dly consciousness and the worship of self. Yaakov represented complete devotion to G-d and the angel was the spiritual representation of Eisav and egotistic human nature.

Yaakov was victorious that night and the angel was obliged to bless his combatant in some capacity. He revealed that in the near future G-d would change his name from Yaakov, which intimates that he received his father's blessings through trickery, to Yisrael, “Because you have struggled with men and angels and prevailed.”

The name change indeed occurred two years later but, curiously, the Torah continues to use both names interchangeably. This is in sharp contrast to Avraham whose previous name “Avram” is never mentioned again after he was renamed by G-d. Why was the Yaakov/Yisrael change not permanent?

The name Yaakov is synonymous with challenge and adversity. This describes the reality of a Jew engaged in the world which is devoid of divine clarity. Revealing the true goodness embedded therein demands creative strategy and nerves of steel.  

The name Yisrael describes a spiritually pristine scenario. The aftermath of the victory of good over evil and clarity over confusion is one of continued spiritual growth.

A Jew is always navigating between these two worlds. When faced with challenges of faith, struggling with observing a mitzvah or simply bogged down with life - be Yaakov. Find creative ways to outsmart these powerful forces.

Then there are times of inspirational clarity: Shabbat, High Holy Days, lighting the Chanukah candles, the bris of a child or standing under the chupah. When experiencing these moments, be Yisrael and strive to broaden your spiritual horizons.

But even when you strike the high notes, never lose focus on maintaining your spiritual equilibrium when striking the low notes. After acquiring the name “Yisrael” do not lose your ability of being a competent “Yaakov”.

Being challenged is as Jewish as being inspired and our forefather bequeathed us with a double identity to master them both.

 

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