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ב"ה

Rabbis' Blog

Here's Why I Live Here

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Quite often we receive calls from Jews inquiring about the Jewish services available in town.

This is how a typical phone call plays out.

“Hi. I’m coming to El Paso for a few days on business. Are there any Kosher restaurants in the area?”

“I’m sorry. We currently do not have any Kosher food establishments in town.”

“I see. Do you have a minyan every morning for Shacharit services?”

“Our weekday morning minyan schedule is Sunday, Monday and Thursday.”

And then comes my favorite question.

“Really? So why do you live there?”

The beginning of this week’s parsha focuses on the Levite tribe charged with the mission of transporting the Mishkan (Tabernacle) throughout the forty years the Israelites traveled in the desert.

There is an obvious, but rarely asked, question about this forty year sojourn. True, the arrival of the Israelites to the Promised Land was delayed for close to forty years since an entire generation expressed a lack of faith in G-d and a disinterest in this special gift. But why did the  nation of several million strong need to spend all those years in a barren desert. Why could they not wait out the time in a more civilized environment?

Our journey from Egypt to Israel was not simply a migration of a people from slavery to freedom. G-d chose us to be His ambassadors to reveal divinity within all of creation. The Torah we received at Sinai is not merely a guidebook to wholesome spiritual living, but a comprehensive manual how to transform a mundane world into a divine dwelling.

In preparation to applying the lessons of the Torah in the real world, G-d illustrated the purpose of our redemption with vivid imagery and experience. Wherever the Mishkan was constructed the barren and lifeless desert transformed into the most fertile and delightful terrain. The Clouds of Glory disposed of dangerous creatures and water that flowed from The Rock caused the entire area to become a green paradise with abundant vegetation.

This immersive experience trained us not to be affected by our surroundings. Instead, we have the power and the obligation to elevate our environment.

Living in large, vibrant Jewish communities where all the religious amenities are readily available is a blessing. But living in a community not yet on that level presents the gift of fulfilling the ultimate Jewish mandate - to cause a spiritual desert to bloom.

That’s why I’m proud to live here.

How to Make a Living

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Our lives are consumed with making a living. Children are pressured to do well in school and savings accounts accumulate college tuition money so they can make it in life. For many it determines where they live, their social circles and their emotional and physical well-being.

This week’s parsha opens with a common Torah refrain guaranteeing the Israelites that they will eventually enter the Promised Land, but this time there is a deeper meaning to the phrase. In the desert all their needs were provided supernaturally. Food fell from heaven, water flowed from a rock and divine clouds protected them from the elements.

Entering into the land of Israel meant a fundamental shift in their lifestyle since the daily miracles would cease and nature will run its course. They will need to grow crops to survive and are taught how to set up their agricultural society in accordance with G-d’s wishes.

“When you come into the Land that I am giving you, the Land should rest a Sabbath to G-d.” (Leviticus 25:2) After six years of sowing and reaping, the seventh year (called Shemittah) is off limits. The land must lay fallow for a complete year.

While allowing a field to rest for a year is good farming practice, it is prudent to alternate between fields. No one in their right mind would abstain from cultivating any of their fields for an entire year. If you don’t plant - you don’t eat. It follows that an entire society putting down the sickle and plough for twelve months is simply ludicrous!

Torah validates the question and provides a fresh perspective on making a living.

“When you will say ‘What will we eat in the seventh year…?’ You should know that I will direct My blessing to you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years.” (Leviticus 25:20-21) No need to worry. Keep Shemita and you will have sufficient supplies to pull you through it.

But there is more to it. Why do you take for granted that you will yield a crop in the first six years? In modern terminology: Is every business venture guaranteed to succeed? Does everyone with a degree land their dream job?

Success is a divine blessing and we need to create a vessel to receive it. But focusing on the perfect vessel while ignoring the source of blessing is like someone who tailors large pockets into their pants to hold money but refuses to go to the bank to draw the cash to fill them.

Therefore the Torah first mentions “the Land should rest” before discussing the six years of work the precede it. When a Jew commits to observing G-d’s instructions from the outset, this causes divine blessing to flow through the vessel - whether it is a field, a job or a business.

Increasing Torah study and Mitzvah observance and strengthening our trust in G-d - the source of all blessing - is the surest path to success.

 

How to be a Do-Gooder

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We all want to be helpful but sometimes unsure where to begin or worry that our efforts may be misplaced and our impact minimal.

Yesterday, Lag B’Omer, we celebrated the legacy of the great Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. A Talmudic scholar of epic proportions best known for being the author of the Zohar and the father of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.

During his lifetime the Roman Empire controlled the Land of Israel and their tyrannical rule often interfered with Jewish religious life. He was overheard criticizing the empire and the enraged emperor sentenced him to death. Rabbi Shimon fled to the mountains of Northern Israel and hid in a cave, together with his son Rabbi Elazar, for thirteen years.

When the danger had passed and the decree was annulled, the two sages emerged from hiding transformed men. Thirteen years of non-stop Torah study elevated them to unparalleled spiritual heights.

Despite his superior spiritual status, Rabbi Shimon inquired whether there was any way he could be helpful to the local population. The citizens of Tiberias suggested he visit their town to attend to a matter of significant inconvenience.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the laws concerning Kohanim, the descendants of Aharon the High Priest who would serve in the Holy Temple. Required to constantly be in a state of ritual purity, they are barred from attending funerals or being in close proximity to a grave (with few exceptions).

The main road of Tiberias was off limits for Kohanim because there was evidence that a grave had been lost there. The marker had vanished and no one recalled its exact location. Hence, the local Kohanim were forced to make a long and inconvenient detour to circumvent the suspected grave.

In a miraculous manner, Rabbi Shimon located the grave and the decades long problem was finally solved.

What is striking about this episode is that, upon rejoining society, Rabbi Shimon immediately searched for ways to be helpful and did not wait for an opportunity to impact the entire population. He worked hard to correct an issue that was inconveniencing very few people in town.

This the Jewish ethic of “doing good.” Be alert for the opportunities that abound and don’t wait to solve the global issues that impact many. If your efforts can convenience even one person - be grateful for the ability you have to put a smile on someone’s face.

 

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