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Rabbis' Blog

Only the Best Will Do

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Hearing the Scroll of Esther read from a proper “Megillah” (twice) is the core of Purim observance and an entire tractate of the Talmud is dedicated to the laws of this important Mitzvah. 

The Mishna declares that one who read the Megillah “backwards” has not fulfilled the Mitzvah. Practically speaking, if one hears the story from Chapter Three until the end and afterwards hears the first two chapters – it doesn’t count. You need to hear the story from the beginning to end - in order.

The Baal Shem Tov taught a profound lesson from this rule. Using a slightly altered translation, this Mishnaic statement can be understood as follows: “One who reads the Megillah as a story of the past” is missing the whole point of the Purim celebration. This is not only history, it is the story of today. Every line in the Megillah contains relevant messages for every one of us, here and now.

In the opening chapter of the Megillah, King Achashverosh throws a 180-day banquet celebrating his ascent to power and the solidification of his kingdom. After half a year of drunken revelry, he orders another seven-day feast for the citizens of his capital Shushan.

The Megillah describes in intricate detail the setting of this lavish feast. “In the courtyard of the king’s palace garden, with white, green and blue hangings, embroidered with cords of linen and purple wool, on silver rods and marble columns; couches of gold and silver, on a floor of alabaster and marble in rows and circles.”

If the setting impresses you, check out the service protocol. “Drinks were served on golden vessels, each of the vessels differing from all other vessels.” No two vessels were the same. Imagine the opulence!

This vivid description gives us an inkling of Achashverosh’s stratospheric wealth, but is it necessary to understanding the Purim story? Must we religiously read in the synagogue so many lines describing how ancient heathens partied and wasted 187 days on frivolous drinking?

Achashverosh chose to celebrate his reign with such extravagance because he had the resources to do so. Every detail of the party needed to exhibit his vast wealth, down to the rods holding up the courtyard curtains. Had the rods been wood instead of silver, had two of the same wine vessels been used or had the party lasted 186 days instead of 187 days - it would not have met Achashverosh’s true potential.

Clearly, this is not the Jewish ethic of celebration. Rather, the Megillah is teaching us the Jewish ethic of achievement. Aim to realize your fullest potential because “Better than nothing” is not an option. Whether it is about our own Torah study, religious observance, Tzedakah donations or inspiring others to follow suit – we must expect of ourselves the very best.

Examine your schedule and find more time for Torah study. Make the effort to observe more mitzvot regularly and take a hard look at your income to be sure your charity is up to par. Ultimately, you are the only one capable of achieving what only you can.

Purim this year begins on the Wednesday evening, February 28 and continues through Thursday, March 1.

Please be sure to observe the four Purim mitzvot:

  1. Listen to the Purim story read from a proper Megillah on Wednesday evening and Thursday during the day.

The following three must be done on Thursday during the day.

  1. Give charity to at least two poor people or two organizations that care for the poor.

  2. Share a gift of two ready-to-eat foods with a friend.

  3. Eat a festive meal.

Click here to learn more about Purim.

 

Your Birthday is a Big Deal

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I am under the impression that Facebook caused a renaissance or comeback of “the birthday.” Although many people celebrate their birthdays every year, typically children are the ones that have annual parties, complete with invitations, birthday hats, entertainers and decorated cakes. Adults usually celebrate milestone birthdays and are often more self conscious of their advancing age than joyful about it.

Nowadays I receive daily birthday reminders about all the wonderful people in my life and cheerful encouragement from a sophisticated algorithm to reach out and join the virtual birthday party. I believe this is a positive development and it is connected to the month of Adar.

The Talmud records that when the evil Haman cast lots to determine the most opportune month to destroy the Jewish nation, he was overjoyed when the dice landed on Adar. It was on the seventh day of this month that Moshe, the iconic and legendary Jewish leader passed away. Haman concluded that it was a bad omen for the Jews.

He was unaware that the seventh of Adar was also Moshe’s birthday. Haman’s ignorance was his undoing, because the merit of Moshe’s birth was so strong as to cause the entire month of Adar to be a powerfully auspicious time for the Jews, outweighing any negative effects from his passing. This triggered what the Megillah describes as “Venahafoch Hu” - which literally means “topsy turvy” - the ultimate reversal of fortunes. Haman and his sons were killed and the Jewish people were spared - gaining a major holiday from the whole ordeal.

Moshe was a great leader and the spiritual energy of his birthday was able to affect positive change for his people close to a thousand years after his passing. However, the specialty of a birthday is not reserved for the spiritual elite. The birth of every person marks the beginning of a new divine mission in our universe and the anniversary of that day is cause for celebration.

When a baby is born a new soul begins to shine in the world. As the child develops and matures his or her light shines brighter and clearer. This progression of goodness continues to intensify each passing year, and on the birthday it is especially potent.

This is the reason the Rebbe encouraged everyone to celebrate their birthdays in a meaningful manner. Throughout the day be sure to learn more Torah, say an extra prayer and give more charity. Spend some time alone to reflect on the blessings of the past and make good resolutions from the future. Most importantly, throw a party for friends and family. Include them in your special day as you celebrate the mandate you were granted by G-d to make this world a better place.

Today is the first day of the Jewish month Adar. As we enter this joyful month of Purim, I encourage you to mark your birthday on the calendar as the day you will celebrate in a most meaningful manner. Click here to learn more about Jewish birthday observances.

 

Chabad's Real Success

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While society struggles with gender inequality in the workforce and the dearth of women CEOs in America, Brooklyn is hosting thousands of Chabad Women Emissaries (Shluchos) from around the world.  Equal partners in the historic and legendary Chabad Lubavitch imprint on the global Jewish community. The annual convention is an opportunity for them to network, strategize, share inspiration and enjoy each other’s company.

In their respective communities they serve prominent roles in education, leadership and influence. But if you would approach these remarkable people at the conference and inquire about their main occupation, pride and passion in life they will undoubtedly say raising their families and being a homemaker.

It should come as no surprise since they are full fledged members of the Chassidic community and appropriately fit this specific stereotype projected on Chassidic women. But what sets them apart as revolutionaries and untraditional is the fact that they are creating such homes and nurturing such families outside of the large communities that normally facilitate them, to say the least.

The Rebbe addressed the participants of the first International Convention of Chabad Women Emissaries in the winter of 1991 and provided the context which sets apart their unique form of leadership than that of their husbands.

After the Revelation at Sinai, the Israelites were instructed to build a edifice that will serve as G-d’s home. “They will make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell within them”.

Our sages note that grammatically the verse should have employed the singular term “in it” - to imply the G-d intends to dwell in the edifice the Israelites would build. However the verse specifically concludes with the plural form “in them” to express G-d’s ultimate purpose and desire in Judaism. We are empowered to transform our private lives and homes into a dwelling place for the Divine. G-d wants to dwell “within us.”

As the mainstay of the home, it is the Jewish woman that has the ability to fulfill this divine wish. This concept eclipses all other considerations and history has proven that proper, healthy and happy Jewish households are the reason we are here today.

Although it is vital to develop organized Jewish communities and services throughout the world, the paramount reason the Rebbe dispatched young couples to every corner of the globe was so that they set up traditional Jewish households and serve as a prototype to the local Jews they encounter and engage. It is a mission that is accomplished primarily through the women and their credit alone.

This weekend I and thousands of my colleagues are getting a taste of what our wives do year round. While the administrative and ceremonial elements of our work may slow down for the next few days, the work of Jewish homemaking never stops.

 

When You Have It All

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A fellow passenger on a flight told me he would like to meet someone who adopted full Torah observance when life was going well. “Most people I know became religious during a crisis or after some type of personal tragedy,” he said. 

Although I had a long list of names for him, I realized that was beside the point. He had just articulated a perspective all too prevalent in our society. Faith and religion is viewed as crisis management tools and religious leaders as de facto social workers.

This week’s parshah teaches us the truth about Judaism.

The legitimacy of our glorious heritage rests solely on Matan Torah, the Revelation at Sinai. Maimonides writes that it is the only reason we believe in the truth of Torah and its traditions.

It is striking therefore, that the Torah prefaces the story of the events at Sinai with the arrival of Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law to the Israelite camp. This reunion was so significant, that the entire parshah in which we read about Matan Torah and the Ten Commandments is called “Yisro”!

Yisro was a man of great accomplishments and had an impressive resume. Aside for being a former trusted advisor to Pharaoh, he had served as the highest ranking priest in every institution of idolatry known to man at the time. He was a deep thinker and his approach to idolatry stemmed from his vast knowledge of nature. Considered the foremost intellectual powerhouse of pagan traditions, he was accorded many honorary titles and enjoyed a life of wealth and privilege.

But above all, he was a man of integrity, genuinely searching for the truth, which inevitably led him to acknowledge the fallacy of idolatry and to embrace the belief in the One G-d, Creator of the Universe. Together with Moshe’s wife Tzipora, and his two grandsons Gershom and Eliezer, Yisro left Midian and his prestigious position among the family of nations to convert to the brand new religion called Judaism, headquartered in a barren desert.

This event puts Judaism in proper context. It was not only embraced by the Abrahamic family who had recently been rescued from two centuries of persecution and slavery. By what can be perceived as a nomadic tribe wandering in a wilderness, dependent solely on miracles to survive.

Yisro broke all the stereotypes and myths about Torah and Mitzvos. They are not crutches to lean on when life is tough, rather conduits through which we connect with G-d and celebrate life.

Every stage in life is the prime time to focus on our relationship with G-d by increasing in Torah study and doing another Mitzvah. Of course, in hard times it will provide strength and direction. But it is during the good days and successful moments that our divine relationship is best nurtured and cemented.

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