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Rabbis' Blog

Education - The Uncompromising Standard

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In anticipation for the revelation at Sinai – the climactic moment of Matan Torah – G-d requested that the Jewish people provide guarantors who will ensure that the Torah remain relevant forever.

As related in the Midrash, the Jews first nominated our three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Each one of these spiritual giants were worthy of such an honor and the combined merits of all three would surely convince G-d that the Jews mean business. Alas, this idea was not acceptable to G-d.

The prophets were next in line. In each generation, a righteous leader would inspire the people to strengthen their commitment to Torah study, mitzvah observance and participation. These constant reminders will ensure the Torah remains part and parcel of Jewish life. This offer was rejected as well.

Finally, the Jewish Nation offered their children. They will be educated to live according to the Torah and to educate the subsequent generations as well. Jackpot! G-d accepted this offer and the dramatic events of Sinai proceeded to change reality forever.

Why does education serve as the catalyst for receiving the Torah?

Offering the Patriarchs as a first choice was indicative of the human tendency to rely on the virtue of lineage. We hope that the memory of an illustrious line of worthy grandparents would perhaps serve as an inspiration to keep tradition alive. Such a strategy has proven faulty and rarely effective.

The second offer proved problematic as well. There is a tendency to designate a select few individuals to be the spiritual conscience of the community. Relying on the wakeup calls of prophets is hardly a way to ensure the continuity of Torah life.

Finally, education was proposed. By designating their children as the guarantors of the Torah, the parents committed themselves to an uncompromising standard. Far more than simply training the youngsters in the academic depths of Torah study during school hours, educating a child is a constant endeavor.

They are inquisitive and genuine. Success depends on constant engagement, self-introspection and primarily action. The exemplary behavior of parents is the most crucial ingredient in raising proud, passionate and observant Jews.

While lineage and inspiration are certainly helpful, the all-encompassing task of serving as role models and teachers of the next generation is the secret to the eternity of Judaism.

As we prepare to receive the Torah anew, reflect on the responsibility we all have in living up to our obligation to G-d, to provide a fresh cadre of worthy guarantors for the greatest gift of all – the Torah.

True Happiness

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On Shavuot, we celebrate the day we became Jews. At the time of the exodus from Egypt the children of Jacob were distinguishable only by their family connection to each other. 50 days later, during the seminal event of the revelation at Sinai, the millions of people gathered at the foot of the mountain were miraculously transformed into a Jewish nation.

Ever since, our destiny has been linked together through victory, defeat, freedom and oppression.

The Torah refers to this holiday as “Yom HaBikkurim.” During Temple times, the festival of Shavuot was the earliest time Jews would bring Bikkurim – the first fruits of the field – as a thanksgiving offering. In addition to the various tithes earmarked for the Priests, Levites, the Poor and consumption in Jerusalem, every landowner was obligated to bring to the Temple a token amount of the first and choicest fruits of his produce and declare appreciation for G-d’s blessings.

This mitzvah applies only in the Land of Israel. The Talmud relates that contrary to all other Mitzvoth associated with the Land of Israel, the Bikkurim offering became effective fourteen years after the Israelites entered the Holy Land. The conquest was a seven-year project and the division of the land to the twelve tribes endured another seven years.

Turns out, that there were hundreds of thousands of Jews tilling the fields and yielding crops for several years, with no obligation of offering Bikkurim to G-d. This is astonishing since the purpose of Bikkurim is essentially the idea of “Hakarat Hatov” – acknowledging the good G-d has granted us. Just as our first words in the morning are “Modeh Ani” – we thank G-d for giving us another day of life, similarly the first fruits of the field belong to G-d. Why deny a Jew the chance to express “thank you” to G-d until the division of the land was completed?

Offering thanks to G-d through Bikkurim was a joyful experience. Following the Torah instruction to rejoice upon bringing Bikkurim to the Temple, communities would travel to Jerusalem with much pomp and ceremony, in an atmosphere of gladness and contentedness.

So long as there was one Jewish family not yet settled in the land, none of the Israelites were truly content and happy and the mitzvah of Bikkurim could not be observed properly.

As we prepare to receive the Torah anew this year on Shavuot, remember the message of Bikkurim. We are a people intrinsically connected to each other, and the success of another is the source of our true happiness.

Destination Wedding (Without the Wedding)

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In the famous song "Dayeinu" we enumerate G-d's great kindness for the Jewish People as they were redeemed from Egypt through the construction of the First Holy Temple. Each of the 15 stanzas articulates one great miracle or gift after the next.

This stanza has always troubled me. "If you would have brought us to Mount Sinai without even giving us the Torah - Dayeinu! This would be sufficient!

Really? The whole purpose of traveling to Mount Sinai was in order to experience the revelation of Matan Torah. Arriving at Sinai without receiving the Torah would be as thrilling as arriving at the wedding hall and calling off the wedding. Not cool!

Upon reaching the Sinai Dessert on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the Torah states that "Israel camped there in front of the Mountain." The specific words used in the Torah give the impression that a singular person was camping at Sinai. Rashi explains that for the first time in history, millions of people were united together "like one person with one heart." Approaching the mountain that would serve as the platform for Matan Torah had the miraculous effect of uniting so many for the singular purpose of receiving direction from G-d.

This alone is an experience worthy of our thanksgiving and we ought to strive to relive this reality each year as we prepare to receive the Torah anew on Shavuot.

Friday, May 26 will be Rosh Chodesh Sivan. I encourage you to reflect on the message of Sinai in our day to day lives. To be worthy of being G-d's ambassadors and revealing divinity in this world, we cannot do it alone. Only by connecting with our fellow Jews "with one heart" and one singular agenda, can we effect the ultimate revelation with the arrival of Moshiach now!

Quality Time with Torah

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Several decades after the destruction of the second Holy Temple, the land of Israel experienced a devastating drought. With no alternative, a group of scholars approached Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and requested that he pray to G-d for salvation. Rabbi Shimon immediately started to expound on the mystical dimension of a verse in Psalms (133:1) “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together.” After delivering this original Kabbalistic dissertation, the skies became overcast and the long-awaited rain finally arrived.

Judaism provides a specific formula for responding to a shortage of rain. A specific order of public fasts and communal prayers is provided in an entire tractate of the Talmud and our history is filled with accounts of communities and spiritual giants evoking divine mercy to bring rain.
 
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is the only one in history to end a drought through teaching Torah. He succeeded in doing this because he held the unique title of “Torato Umenuto – His occupation is Torah.” More than the rest of his contemporaries, his entire life was Torah. He holds the record of being the only sage quoted in every chapter of the Talmud.
 
In addition to being a master Talmudist, he was an integral part of an unbroken chain of Kabbalah – the tradition of the inner dimension of Torah received from Moses. As the author of the Zohar his articulation of Kabbala serves as the primary foundation for all Kabbalistic works to date.
 
Rabbi Shimon suffered greatly under Roman oppression. Forced to hide in a cave together with his son for 13 years to escape the Emperor’s wrath, he excelled in Torah knowledge and divinity. Yet, upon rejoining society after the Emperor’s death, his priority was helping the community with mundane and simple issues. The welfare of his fellow was paramount.
 
This legendary sage passed away on Lag B’Omer and the Jewish world will commemorate his life and legacy with joyful celebration on this day (Sunday, May 14). While his accomplishments are surely beyond the scope of our capacities, we can surely apply a relevant lesson from Rabbi Shimon.
 
As the paragon of Torah learning, he illustrated that Torah can be the entire focus of life. While we have an obligation to engage in the world and spend considerable time on regular daily needs, we can all be Rabbi Shimon at certain moments. Set aside time to study Torah each day and during those few minutes, be fully engaged with the Torah you are studying. Turn off the phone, close the door and spend true quality time with G-d. 
 
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