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Rabbis' Blog

When it Makes No Sense

We all know that the Jewish journey through history has had its ups and downs. Extraordinary episodes of men, women and children who courageously lived as Jews and died as Jews. When called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for our heritage they did so proudly.

In this week’s parsha we learn of a dramatic event that became a cornerstone of Jewish identity. When G-d requested of Avraham to offer his only son Yitzchok as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah he responded without hesitation. Fully aware of the consequences of such an endeavor, the 137 year old Avraham and the 37 year old Yitzchok marched confidently to fulfill G-d’s desire.

It was a test of epic proportions: Avraham to sacrifice his only son and Yitzchok to sacrifice his life. At the final moment, an angel of G-d stopped Avraham in the act and explained that the request was only that Yitzchok be offered on the alter, not that he be slaughtered.

The event of the “Akeida” is considered the epitome of Avraham’s divine service and the final proof G-d needed to confirm the fact that Avraham was altruistically dedicated to Him. The “Akeida” is so foundational to Judaism, that all 19 verses of the recorded story in the Torah form the permanent opening of our daily prayer liturgy.

This is perplexing, especially since Jewish history is unfortunately filled with stories of much greater sacrifice. During the Chanukah era a woman named Chana was forced to see all her seven sons murdered because they refused to acknowledge idolatry. And if you think about it, Avraham heard the request directly from G-d whereas millions of Jewish martyrs throughout history received no such divine communication. Does their sacrifice not seem nobler?

Even if Avraham deserves the credit for being first, he had already displayed his preparedness to sacrifice his life for G-d when he was thrown into a fiery furnace in “Ur Kasdim” for refusing to obey King Nimrod’s command to serve idols. What was unique about the sacrifice Avraham displayed by the Akeida that was missing in “Ur Kasdim?”

Martyrdom can make sense. When thoroughly convinced of the truth of an ideology, one can rationalize that a life of hypocrisy and falsehood is not worth living, or even logically conclude that dying for the cause can be the greatest asset for the cause. Not all sacrifice is necessarily altruistic.

The Akeida was different. There was nothing to be accomplished by Avraham slaughtering his son Yitzchak. Quite the contrary. Not only was noone there to witness it, it was the exact opposite of Avraham’s philosophy against the heathen practice of human sacrifice. Besides, with Yitzchak gone there will certainly be no continuity to Avraham’s lifelong work. This is why the Akeida was so special. It made absolutely no sense and Avraham’s unwavering readiness to obey confirmed his altruistic commitment to G-d.

We read about the “Akeida” every day in our prayers since we are constantly called upon to make sacrifices to live Jewishly. Avraham and Yitzchok bequeathed to us the natural ability to serve G-d altruistically, even when it makes no logical sense - so long as we choose to do so. 

Here is How I Measure Success

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I was recently asked by several friends, in separate conversations, how I measure my success in my mission as a Chabad rabbi. “Is your goal to have a large synagogue filled with congregants? When will you be satisfied with your work?” The questions were posed in distinct contexts, necessitating my responses to differ in articulation but remain the same at its core.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the adventures of Avraham, the first Jew. What is striking about the Torah narrative about this fascinating and most consequential figure is that it begins when he is 75 years old. Other than the fact that he was born to Terach and married Sarai, the Torah devotes zero space to the accomplishments of his youth up until he was well in his seventies.

Clearly, while every word in the Torah is a literal description of what occurred, its purpose is not to be a historical record. Thousands of stories and details of our rich history were transmitted through tradition and later recorded in the Talmud and Midrash. The word “Torah” is etymologically linked to the word “Hora’ah” which means “lesson” or “instruction.” It follows that historical details recorded clearly in the Torah serve as a lesson for all time.

In our case, what can be the purpose of the Torah opening the narrative of Avraham’s unique relationship with G-d at the point of “Lech Lecha” when he is already advanced in age, disregarding the fascinating story of how he discovered G-d and courageously sanctified His name against the most powerful leaders of the time?

Avraham’s heroic exploits prior to “Lech Lecha” were his own initiative. He recognized the fallacy of idolatry and the truth of the Creator on his own, and began promoting this ideology without prompting or direction from Above.

At age 75 Avraham experienced something new. He was commanded by G-d to do something - and he obeyed. To travel away from his homeland, birthplace, and family to a land of G-d’s choice. This challenge certainly pales in comparison to risking his life for his beliefs, but this was the first time he strengthened his relationship with G-d on G-d’s terms.

By opening the history of Avraham at the point where his behavior is based on divine instruction, the Torah teaches us the core of our relationship with G-d and our ability to change the world: Follow His instructions carefully and great things will happen.

This is the template I try to use when measuring meaningful success. G-d’s instructions are clearly articulated in the Code of Jewish Law and in the vast corpus of Torah literature and if my day resembles the model found therein - I can take that to the bank.

Of course we have an ambitious vision for the future of the local Jewish community. But it is the day-to-day interactions and mitzvot that happen as a result that define our success. Providing a fellow Jew the opportunity to wear Tefillin, learning Torah for ten minutes with someone or inspiring a child to give some charity are the small things that make every day a huge success. Because these are the things G-d wants - and our greatest gift is the ability to get them done.

 

Here’s How to Inspire People to Change

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It's frustrating to see others make wrong choices and even worse when they ignore good critique and advice for the future. Many well intentioned preachers fail to inspire and the question is: why?

This week's parsha opens with G-d notifying Noach that the corrupt society he lived in would be destroyed in an epic flood and that he will father a new world. To save himself, he is instructed to build a box-like boat large enough for his family, a pair of every animal species and provisions to last one year.

Noach got to work without delay. After all, it's not every day G-d provides you detailed building plans and articulates how much is at stake. Yet, despite the urgency, the construction project lasted for 120 years!

Everyone involved in construction knows that rarely is a project finished ahead of schedule. But 120 years seems to be an exaggeration by any stretch. What took so long?

Building the Ark was an instruction given exclusively to Noach. He alone prepared the materials and single handedly constructed the mammoth ship. G-d made it a solo project so that it be prolonged and drawn out in order to attract the attention of humanity. Every day that Noach labored over the strange box people inquired about it and he shared G-d’s message of impending doom - hoping they would change their ways.

The Ark’s century-long construction was the grandest advertisement of G-d’s intentions for the future and the loudest wake up call for humanity to repent. But alas, Noach’s warnings fell on deaf ears, the Great Flood became a reality and all was lost.

Over a thousand years later, Moshe faced a similar scenario. The Israelites had sinned with the Golden Calf and G-d decreed their complete annihilation. Unlike Noach in his time, Moshe effectively inspired the Israelites to repentance and successfully convinced G-d to rescind the terrible decree.

Why did Moshe succeed and Noach fail?

Moshe selflessly cared for the Jewish nation to the point that he boldly declared “If You (G-d) plan to destroy them, it will be over my dead body!” So when he admonished them for sinning it was not in order to fulfill his obligation to G-d but because he truly cared for their physical and spiritual welfare.

Noach, on the other hand, obediently constructed the Ark and warned his generation as an expression of his devotion to G-d, but not because he truly cared about his listeners.

The historical contrast between Noach and Moshe provides a crystal clear perspective on how to effectively inspire people to be better: Truly care for them. Work hard to find the right words and methods to get your message across. And if all else fails, say a genuine prayer on their behalf.

Because no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

 

Playing by the Game Rules

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My daughter received a board game as a gift over the holidays. She excitedly opened the package and immediately started reading the game rules.

“Why don’t you make up your own rules?” I asked her.

She rolled her eyes at me. “It doesn’t work that way, Totty! The game is only fun when you play the way the game makers decided. Otherwise, the board and pieces won’t make any sense!”

I couldn't argue with that.

This week we completed a full cycle of learning Torah and started from the beginning. Reading the opening words of the Torah describing creation an obvious question presents itself. Why must we learn about creation in a book meant to be a guidebook to Jewish life?

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the 12th century sage popularly known as “Rashi,” wrote a commentary on the Torah which has been unanimously accepted as the gold standard of understanding the original Torah text for many centuries.

In his opening entry Rashi goes so far as to suggest that the first thirteen portions of the Torah are seemingly inconsistent with the purpose of the Torah as a Jewish code of law.

Here is how he answers this fundamental question:

For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they (Israel) will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper. When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

Rashi lived in medieval France in the era of the Crusades. There was no Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel at the time and the typical five year old child studying Torah was unlikely to encounter this condemnation throughout his lifetime. So how is this explanation relevant?

Because the premise of the argument over Israel's ownership appears in many formats. Why is one day a week different from the rest? Why is this food permitted to some and forbidden to others?

Starting the narrative at Genesis helps circumvent 99% of the frustrations the Torah student will inevitably have. Why are the rules so invasive? Why are there instructions for every detail of life? Must I really follow standards that make no sense to me?

At the very beginning of G-d’s communication to humanity He presents His credentials and frames the Torah for what it truly is. As the Creator, He is gifting us the opportunity to live according to the standards found in the blueprint of the universe.

Like playing the game by the rules.

When understood properly and presented appropriately, this perspective will resonate not only in our private lives but on the geopolitical stage as well.

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