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Rabbis' Blog

Making Deals With G-d

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From a young age I have had the opportunity to encourage Jews to do Mitzvot. The Rebbe educated us that we must all take personal responsibility for the spiritual growth of every Jew.

The Chabad education system incorporates a robust program empowering youngsters to venture out into public spaces, approach perfect strangers and assist them in doing another Mitzvah. Whether the setting calls for helping someone don Tefillin in the middle of a busy airport, bringing a Lulav and Etrog to the hospital and everything in between.

In the course of this life-long mission I have met Jews of every imaginable stripe and flavor. To be sure, responses to Mitzvah offers have been varied and I’d like to reflect upon a certain type I hear from time to time.

“Rabbi, I’ll do it for you.”

“I’m doing the Mitzvah so that this business deal works out.”

“My health has been better, I hope this Mitzvah helps.”

While these approaches are understandable and do not faze me in the slightest, others have questioned the value of Mitzvot observed for ulterior motives.

In this week’s parshah we learn of the prohibition of Orlah. One may not eat from the fruits of a tree for the first three years after it was planted. In Israel, the fourth year fruits are considered holy and during the Temple era were only eaten in Jerusalem as a thanksgiving to G-d. The Torah then emphasizes “In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit. [Observe this law] in order to increase the tree’s produce for you.”

G-d makes a deal with the Jew: Abstain from eating the fruits of your labor for four years and it will be well worth your trouble.

Why is this necessary? Are we not obligated to observe G-d’s commands altruistically without concern for material benefit?

The famed Rabbi Akiva poignantly explained it this way. The prohibition of Orlah is uniquely challenging as the Yetzer Hara (the Evil Inclination) rightfully protests the unfairness of working so hard and reaping no benefit for so many years. G-d acknowledges this human tendency by indulging us with the promise of tantalizing success in the long term.

This one-of-a-kind deal teaches us a fundamental truth about Jewish observance and spiritual growth. There is no shame in starting the journey for selfish reasons. In fact, the life story of Rabbi Akiva proves the validity of this point.

He was a forty year old illiterate shepherd when the beautiful only daughter of the wealthiest man in Jerusalem offered to marry him if he would commit to learning Torah full time. Unable to refuse such a deal, he entered the Torah academies and eventually became the most important Talmudic sage in Jewish history. Although the beginning of his spiritual journey was transparently selfish, he attained the greatest spiritual heights and his impact on Jewish life continues to resonate today - 2,000 years later.

Don’t let your self-consciousness interfere with your spiritual growth. Find a good selfish reason to learn more Torah and to do another Mitzvah and encourage others to do the same.

 

Finding Hidden Treasures

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Every Tuesday I have the distinct pleasure of discussing the weekly parshah with a wonderful group of people. In the middle of a busy week, Jews with varying levels of Torah knowledge and training, come together to discover new depth in portions of the Torah we read again each year. Some participate online via the Facebook Live stream and we all come away a little bit wiser and more inspired as a result.

This week’s double parsha Tazria and Metzrah focuses primarily on a condition called Tzaraat which has received sloppy treatment in translation. Tzaraat is typically translated as Leprosy, but even a rudimentary reading of the parsha renders this translation a non-starter.

Describing vastly different conditions on human skin, wool clothing, leather couches and stone walls it is certainly not within the purview of a dermatologist and our sages unequivocally state that Tzaraat has vanished from this world after the destruction of the Holy Temple.

Maimonides explains that this phenomenon was a “miraculous” manifestation of G-d’s way to guiding a Jew to repentance. So while the word “Tzaraat” is currently used in Modern Hebrew to describe leprosy, it has nothing to do with the subject matter of this week's parsha.

Realizing this grave inaccuracy led our group to briefly discuss the importance of learning beyond translations. While one who lacks proficiency in Biblical Hebrew should never feel excluded from Torah learning - we need to remember this: If our impression of the subject matter leaves us confused, frustrated or uninspired it is because the depth and truth of the concept has been lost in translation or is inaccurately presented. Once we probe the sources and allow the Torah to speak for itself, we will always find the beauty and depth in every, word, sentence and paragraph.

This lesson can be derived from the subject of Tzaraat itself. A person, garment or home that  was afflicted by this condition was subject to the severest levels of ritual impurity (another Torah subject that is enormously abused in translation - but that's for another time). And yet, when introducing the laws of Tzaraat pertinent to homes, the Torah uses language indicating that it was a divine gift the Jews should look forward to experiencing!

The Talmudists explain that the Canaanites living in the land before the Israelites arrived hid vast treasures in the walls of their homes, hoping to one day return. However, the divine gift of the Promised Land is eternal and includes everything left behind. Therefore G-d caused the mysterious Tzaraat to appear on these homes, rendering them unfit for habitation and condemned to demolition. When the owners broke down the walls they discovered the hidden treasures and were able to make use of their G-d given wealth.

This teaches us a fundamental truth of reality. Every fault can be a catalyst for perfection and tragedy will ultimately lead us to greater things. Let not our mistakes define who we are rather teach us how to be better. As long as look past the “walls” of our deficiencies and inhibitions we will discover the hidden treasures we all possess.

 

Let's Talk About Moshiach

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A simple Jew in an Eastern European shtetl came home from services with exciting news. “Moshiach is coming soon to take us all to Israel! Can you imagine? No more problems from the anti-semitic landowner or pogroms from the Cossacks!”

“How can we move to Israel now?” his wife cried. “We just finished renovating the barn!” 

The farmer’s excitement dissipated and there was an awkward silence. “Not to worry,” said the woman with a smile. “G-d saved us from the Cossacks, He will surely save us from Moshiach as well.”

It is one of the fundamental Jewish beliefs and yet Moshiach remains a frightening mystery to so many. Do we really want this enigmatic messianic phenomenon to change our lives against our will?

What type of world do we wish to live in? What type of future do we want for our children and grandchildren? 

Humanity yearns for a world free of war, famine, disease and hatred. On the final day of Pesach (Acharon Shel Pesach) we read a section from Isaiah about the era of Moshiach. After describing the persona of the future redeemer, the prophet envisions the utopic era he will deliver as a time when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb;” a time when all peoples will dwell together in peace. No more war, famine, disease or hatred.

How will this be possible? “For the earth will be filled with knowledge of the L-rd, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9). The main role of Moshiach is to serve as the ultimate teacher for all of humanity. Nations will not be coerced to lay down their arms, nor will we be forced to treat each other with respect. Moshiach will reveal the truth of reality to all and peace will be the automatic result. If anyone resists these changes, you will know that Moshiach has not yet arrived.

The message of Moshaich is so relevant to Pesach because the exodus from Egypt was the beginning of the long road to ultimate redemption. At the Seder we commemorate the accomplishments of the past and at the conclusion of Pesach we focus on reaching the finish line.

The Baal Shem Tov would celebrate the conclusion of Pesach with a festive dinner in tribute to Moshiach. Rather than only learning, praying and yearning for His arrival, Moshiach should also be a culinary experience – similar to how the Seder brings the message of freedom to all our senses.

I invite you to join us on Thursday, April 16, 7:00pm at Chabad for Seudat Moshiach – the dinner in tribute to Moshiach. Discover the real facts behind this fundamental Jewish topic and enjoy some final bites of Shmurah Matzah and other Passover delicacies. If you cannot join us, I encourage you to eat some matzah and toast l'chaim on four glasses of wine in anticipation for a better world to come. 

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