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Rabbis' Blog

The Fine Art of Tzedaka


I'd like to share with you a story we discussed yesterday at the bi-monthly Pirkei Avot Lunch and Learn.

A blind homeless man came to the village of the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov. He settled down at the side of the road with a tin can waiting for the wonderful locals to donate some much needed money.

Alas, the villagers did not pay much attention to his plight and the can remained empty. Rabbi Eliezer noticed this sorry state of affairs and he sat down next to the beggar without saying a word.

Sure enough, word spread like wildfire that the venerable sage was in the company of the mysterious beggar. Surly this man must be a giant in his own right! The crowds came out to view the scene and the coins started falling into the can by the dozens.

Although unable to see, the poor man sensed that there was a significant change in his surroundings. "What is going on? Why are the donations flowing all of a sudden?"

"Don't you know who is sitting next to you?" the townspeople replied. "The great Rabbi Eliezer!"

The man realized the great kindness the Rabbi had done for him and he blessed him: Just as you were so gracious to do this kindness for a man who is seen but cannot see, may the One who sees and cannot be seen (G-d) bless you with immeasurable kindness.

In this week's parsha we learn about the mitzvah of Tzedaka. Although giving seems to be an elementary concept, we truly need to train ourselves in the right way to give.

Every time we are solicited for much needed donations from worthy organizations and causes, we are confronted with the gnawing feeling that perhaps this money could be better used somewhere else. How can we be sure to get the best return on the investment? For example, in smaller Jewish communities, creating a children's program for $1,000 might cater to 50 children, whereas in a larger community, the very same program for the same price would attract and benefit 200 children. Is the local investment worthwhile?

The truth is that giving tzedaka is not natural. Why should I part with my hard earned cash?

The healthiest reason to do so is to fulfill the wish of G-d A-lmighty. SInce success is a blessing of G-d, we need to be aware that we are merely guardians of His wealth to appropriate accordingly. It is important to give out G-d's money the way He instructs in the Torah.

The Torah addresses the tzedaka quandary in the following verse (Shemot 22:24): When you lend money to the poor people in your locality, you must not act toward him like a creditor.

Rashi explains that in the precise articulation of this verse we learn the order of giving. Faced with the option of giving money locally or out of town - G-d wants you to give local.

May we inculcate the lessons of giving and always merit to be on the giving end of the wheel of life.

Wealth, Poverty and Waste


Capitalism seems to be working for most of us in the United States. Yet, just like every man-made system, it has its drawbacks. There are three negative attitudes that can result from living in a capitalist society.

a)    For the large majority of us who are not scraping the bottom of the barrel, there can be a tendency to waste money on petty, foolish and unproductive things. We lose our appreciation for the value of pocket change or small money. After all, I can spare a dollar or two.

b)     Those that have been blessed with great success and have amassed a large fortune, can sometimes delude themselves into thinking that they can succeed alone and don't need the little guys.

c)    People on the lowest rungs of the financial ladder can grow despondent and lose hope of ever making a true impact on society.

This week, in addition to reading the weekly Torah portion of Mishpatim during Shabbat services, we will read an extra Parsha - Parshat Shekalim. This portion of six verses deals with the mitzvah of Machatzit Hashekel - the annual half shekel tax.

In Temple times, the Jews were obligated to pay several taxes for the upkeep of the Temple service, to provide support for the Priestly and Levite families and to care for the poor and destitute. The specific amounts of these taxes varied based on the individual. If one harvested a large crop, his taxes were considerably higher than one who had yielded a smaller crop.

There was one tax that obligated everyone to give an equal amount. Every day, the Temple service would begin each morning with a Korban Tamid, a communal sacrifice offered on the Alter and close with a communal sacrifice offered in the late afternoon. On Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and Festivals there was an additional prescribed amount of communal sacrifices as well. These communal sacrifices were an essential element of G-d's relationship with His people.

The livestock used for these communal sacrifices was purchased with money from a special communal account. Each year, during the month of Adar, every Jew was obligated to hand over a half shekel - a value of less than $7 - to the Temple collector to be deposited in the communal sacrifice account. By giving a paltry sum once a year, every single Jew was represented before G-d with the entire nation every morning and afternoon.

You see what can be accomplished with seven bucks? This teaches us the value of every dollar. Appreciate the huge potential your money has for good and spend it wisely. Even a small sum can have a major impact.

There is an important thing you should know about this Community Sacrifice Account. Amounts larger than a half shekel per individual were not accepted. If a fabulously wealthy and philanthropic Jew wished to foot the bill of the daily sacrifices for the entire year - a huge expense - the response would be unequivocal. It is a generous offer and the money can surely be used for many worthy causes - but the daily relationship between G-d and the Jewish people cannot be funded by one individual. At the same time - one half shekel cannot purchase even one sacrifice. For the financial elite to be represented daily in the Temple - they needed the combined contributions of the entire community.

Finally, no one was absolved of this minimal obligation. No matter the circumstances, this amount was collected from even the poorest of the poor. Their half shekel was needed to complete the picture.

So remember, money is powerful and every dollar should be used wisely. Even if you may be blessed with financial, intellectual or social success you still need the rest of the community. And no matter how little you may have - you can also make a great impact.

Chabad Feminine Power

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One weekend a year, Chabad Rabbis assume the roles of babysitter, cook and homemaker. In connection with the yartzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, of saintly memory, the Rebbe’s wife, Chabad Rebbetzins gather in Brooklyn for the International Conference of Shluchos. The largest annual gathering of Jewish women leadership in the world.

Four hundred Chabad women emissaries participated in the first conference 28 years ago. This weekend, over 2,000 Rebbetzins are converging on Crown Heights from every corner of the globe. They will inspire each other and create new strategies to bring the joy and beauty of Judaism to every Jew in their respective hometowns and regions.

According to age-old stereotypes of Jewish religious communities, it would seem strange that Chabad women are spearheading Jewish outreach and gathering to celebrate their leadership roles. This week’s parsha gives perspective to what is going on now in Brooklyn.

In preparation for the Revelation at Sinai, G-d instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to discuss various mitzvoth of the Torah with the Jews to be sure they willingly accept it. “Thus shall you say to the Congregation of Jacob (the women), and speak to the Israelites (the men)” (Exodus 19:4). Approach the women before the men. After the women consent, the men will surely follow suit. (As if the men have a choice? ;))

The woman, as the mainstay and foundation of the home will set the tone for generations to come. The eternity of Jewish tradition is dependent on her commitment and sacrifice.

A feuding couple once came to a compromise. He will make the big decisions and she will make the small decisions. The big decisions included; how to vote in the presidential election, the strategy the US should adopt in defeating ISIS and what ought to be on the agenda at the UN. The small decisions included; which schools the children attend, bedtime routine, afterschool activities and where the family will vacation.

Yes my friends, the mother of the home influences every detail of the home. Jewish tradition and observance is an integral part of her sphere. As the saying goes, “When Mommy is happy, we are all happy.”

Since the beginning of our glorious history, the Jewish woman has been the standard-bearer of Torah.

Even though this Shabbos may be lonely and difficult for many Chabad Rabbis, it is the greatest investment we can make to energize the global Jewish community. I am certain that Chana will return next week with renewed vigor, joy and great ideas that will greatly benefit our community. In addition to the workshops, learning sessions and celebrations, these gracious Jewish leaders will pray on our behalf at the Ohel, and at the resting place of the Rebbetzin. As Shabbat marks the 29th anniversary of her passing, the Rebbetzin surely intercedes on our behalf, that the entire Jewish world be blessed in every way possible, and with the ultimate blessing, the arrival of our righteous Moshiach.

Traveler's Food of Faith

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As a frequent flyer, when preparing food for trips I take into account the possibility of lengthy delays, but there is a limit to what I can shlep. Once, during a peak season I was stranded in Dallas at midnight, rebooked to an early morning flight the next morning with no food left. Obtaining kosher food before arriving El Paso was not an option. Yes, it was a hungry trip.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the grand journey the Israelites embarked upon as they left Egypt. They were not given an arrival date to the Promised Land and the food provisions they took with them were wholly inadequate for a lengthy desert sojourn. Miraculously, the matzah baked on their first morning of freedom lasted thirty days!

As the 15th of Iyar dawned, the matzah was finished and the Jews faced the frightening probability of starvation. In response to their concerns, G-d notified them that He would provide them food every day from heaven. Each morning the Manna, cushioned between two layers of dew, would descend upon the camp and each family was to gather an “omer” measurement per head.

There were specific rules associated with this divine nourishment. 1. No extra was to be gathered. No matter how much one gathered in the field, back home the manna would always equate one “omer” per mouth. 2. No hoarding. Each day’s portion of manna needed to be consumed on the same day. No leftovers for early morning breakfast.

On the first Friday of this arrangement, upon returning home from gathering manna, the Jews realized that there was a double portion in their jars. Moshe explained that on the seventh day, Shabbat, food will not fall from heaven and on Friday G-d would provide for two days.

This is the reason for the custom of having two Challahs at the Shabbat meals.

The peculiar food arrangement that sustained our forebears in the desert for forty years was a training period in true faith and trust in G-d. Going to sleep at night without food in the cabinet or fridge for breakfast is a frightening prospect. To follow the rules of “gathering” our sustenance can be challenging. Most of all, forgoing a full day of obtaining a livelihood seems irresponsible at best.

Yet, this is the essence of faith and trust in G-d. By adhering to His guidebook to life, regardless of what the big world says, we are assured a sufficient and plentiful livelihood, even in the “desolate wilderness” of life. Honesty in business, tithing accordingly and Shabbat observance are the keys to monetary success.

As you recite the Hamotzi on the two challahs on Friday night, be mindful of the message of the manna. Even when making a living seems as challenging as finding bread in a desert, by sticking to G-d’s rules we will certainly receive His blessing. If you are thankfully in the higher income bracket, be thankful for G-d’s continued blessing and find ways to improve the clarity and size of your vessel. If good is good – better is always better.

Our Beautiful World

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In preparing this message, I chose to open with an inspiring quote about optimism. Google yielded this gem from Winston Churchill:

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

On the Shabbat morning of the 10th of Shevat, 1950, the Previous Rebbe passed away. Exactly one year later, the Rebbe assumed the mantle of leadership of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.

By divine providence, the Previous Rebbe had instructed that a Chassidic discourse entitled Basi Legani be published for that fateful Shabbat. The Rebbe considered it a spiritual guide for the next generation of Chabad, elaborating on its message and revealing deeper insight each year on the anniversary of his leadership.

The opening line of the discourse is a verse in King Solomon’s Song of Songs (5:1) describing the revelation at Sinai: “Basi Legani - I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride.” It is understood as follows: “I (G-d) have come (returned) to my garden (this physical/corporeal world), my sister, my bride (- this statement addresses the Jewish people – G-d’s bride).”

The discourse addresses a broad range of deep philosophical subjects including the purpose of creation, humanity, good versus evil and the ability of self-transformation. While there are limitless layers of insight in every line, the very first verse sets the tone for this foundational text. It describes the world we live in as a beautiful garden – a divine one, no less!

The intention is not of a utopian fairyland drifting in the clouds of our dreams and best imaginations. This physical universe, the same space that contains nuclear weapons capable of landing in the hands of madmen and terrorists, is the beautiful divine garden in which G-d is so proud to dwell! Can a world so insecure and volatile be a reflection of divinity and G-dly purpose?

In 1986, the Rebbe addressed the seeming contradiction between reality and King Solomon’s statement, in connection with the (behind the scenes) turbulent years of the Second Cold War. Can a world constantly on the brink of World War III be G-d’s beautiful garden?

Surprisingly, a lesson derived from nuclear weapons serves as the counterbalance to the global jitters they cause. The destructive powers of a nuclear bomb can be unleashed with the press of a button. Thus, the simple action of one individual can affect millions and alter the course of history.

Approximately 800 years ago, Maimonides declared: “One is obligated to view himself and the world as equally balanced. One positive action can tip the scales and bring salvation to the entire world”. Until recently, this assertion may have seemed as an exaggeration. The technological advance that debuted on the world scene as a cause of mass destruction clearly illustrates the truth of this inspiring statement. Especially in light of the fact that the powers of goodness and productivity greatly outweigh the forces of evil and destruction.

This world is a divine garden filled with billions of individuals each capable of unleashing the powers of goodness and kindness that can positively impact the entire universe. We need only to identify the opportunities that abound. The boldness and ability to overcome the difficulties they present will come in due course.

Learn More About The Rebbe's First Discourse Basi Legani 


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Removing the Generation Gap

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Pharaoh and the Egyptians were taking a beating. Plague after plague befell them, robbing them of their comfort, sanity, much of their property and their sense of security. The plagues served the dual purpose of breaking the Egyptians to the point that they would agree to release the Israelites from slavery and to strengthen the faith of the Israelites in G-d’s power in creation.

By the time Moses warned Pharaoh of plague number eight, his ministers and advisers had had enough and they convinced Pharaoh to negotiate. Pharaoh opened with the following question: Who will be joining you on this three-day journey to the desert to sacrifice to G-d? Moses responded: We will go with our young people, the elders, our sons, our daughters, the sheep and cattle.

Pharaoh refused to permit the youngsters to attend. Adults offer sacrifices. Children have no place at such events. Moses refused and that round of negotiations fell apart. In fact, Pharaoh was furious with Moses and he banished him from his presence.

On the surface, Pharaoh’s obstinance seems quite strange. Egypt was falling apart and he desperately needed to preserve what remained by staving off another devastating plague. Was control over a group of children joining their parents in the desert for a three-day service worth risking the well-being of the country?

For close to a century Pharaoh had been searching for the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. Eighty years prior, he decreed all male babies be killed, forcing the girls to assimilate into Egyptian society. His plan failed and now one of the survivors of that plot was poised to redeem the Israelites from his servitude.

There was one last chance at success: Creating a culture that views prayer and religious participation exclusively for old timers and children stay away. If only retirees join the ceremonies Moses had in mind, the Jewish future would be doomed. Moses torpedoed his efforts by insisting on taking the children, dashing his hopes of cleansing the world of the family of Abraham.

This message resonates today more than ever. It is imperative to involve the youth in every aspect of Jewish life: Prayer, philanthropy, study, celebration and organization. Fusing the wisdom of the elderly and the energy of the young will ensure the eternity of our nation.

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