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Rabbis' Blog

The Bright Side of Darkness

Life is a mixed bag of experiences. Some more memorable than others, some more pleasant than others and we often struggle to understand the purpose and value of our negative experiences.

This week’s parsha is a study in contrasts that provides us with a straightforward perspective on understanding reality.

We learn about the paranoid Moabite King Balak who hired the vile prophet Bilaam to curse them to extinction. Historically, Bilaam’s words were fatal and had destroyed powerful nations before. The Jews were completely unaware of the dramatic saga of how G-d foiled this fiendish scheme and it was brought to their attention only through Torah’s prophetic record.

Throughout the forty years since the exodus from Egypt, this was a moment when we were truly vulnerable and G-d’s limitless love for us saved us from certain catastrophe.

It all turned out for the best. Bilaam ultimately delivered beautiful blessings to the Jews, rounding them off with the clearest prophecy of Israel’s future stratospheric rise and the arrival of Moshiach ever recorded in the Torah.

In an ironic twist, Bilaam became the harbinger of our redemption and Balak became an active participant in the process of Moshiach’s arrival. His grand-daughter Ruth later converted to Judaism, becoming the matriarch of the Davidic lineage of which Moshiach will be a descendant.

To be clear, evil must be condemned and destroyed and Balak and Bilaam are forever linked in infamy. But the story of the unexpected positive results of their hatred allows us to appreciate that sorrow can lead to joy and defeat can be the catalyst of victory.

Shabbat will be the seventeenth day of the month of Tammuz. It is the anniversary of the tragic events of the Golden Calf and later the day our enemies breached the walls of Jerusalem resulting in the destruction of the Holy Temple. On any other day of the week it is observed as a fast day, but this year Shabbat postpones the fast to Sunday.

The fact that this Shabbat must be observed as a day of celebration and pleasure - notwithstanding the deep sorrow the day’s tragic events certainly evoke - poignantly illustrates how all negativity will be transformed and elevated in the era of Moshiach

Pain is real and we hope and pray to always experience only revealed good. There is no need to justify tragedy or to be numb to suffering. But we must never become despondent in the face of sorrow. Darkness will one day shine brightly and we can do our part today by seizing the opportunities to bring more light into our own lives and to the world around us.

Balancing Publicity and Anonymity

 

Good people do good things and it’s great when others know about it, because credit can be given where credit is due and others may be inspired to do more good as well.

However, Judaism teaches the value of goodness done without fanfare. Heroic acts of kindness done under the radar unnoticed by the greater public.

In this week’s parsha we learn about Moshe’s older sister Miriam and her legacy.

Throughout the forty years the Israelites journeyed in the desert G-d provided them with food from heaven, water from a rock and divine clouds to protect them from the elements. As they approached the borders of the Promised Land, Miriam passed away and suddenly the miraculous well of fresh water that flowed from the rock for 39 years dried up.

The distraught nation of several million strong found themselves in a desert without water, facing certain death. G-d instructed Moshe how to cause the miraculous well to resume flowing, but the brief halt revealed an astonishing fact about Israel’s survival for so many years in the parched desert: The miraculous well of life giving water was all in the merit of Miriam.

For thirty nine years, Miriam’s righteousness evoked G-d’s mercy for the Jewish people to provide them with much needed water for hydration and ritual purity. Nevertheless, during her lifetime this was unknown and unacknowledged. Only after her passing did the Israelites name this miraculous source of life “Miriam’s Well” which remains a cornerstone of her eternal legacy.

On the other hand, Miriam was accorded one of the most public honors bestowed on a mortal in the merit of one of her earliest achievements. In an earlier episode, Miriam mistakenly criticized Moshe’s behavior, in a private conversation with her brother Aharon. G-d punished her for this infraction with Tzaraat and she was forced to spend seven days outside of the Israelite Camp.

Despite the fact that her week-long banishment was a divine punishment, G-d halted the journey to Israel until she returned to her rightful spot in the camp. This was in tribute to the fact that when Moshe was three months old and his parents, fearing Pharaohs genocidal decree, were forced to abandon him on the Nile River, Miriam risked her life, waiting at the riverside for many hours to watch out for her baby brother. In kind, the Divine Presence and millions of people respectfully waited for her in her time of need.

Miriam’s story teaches us that we must strike a balance between these two extremes. Publicity is crucial to inspire others to follow suit, but it must never be the motivating factor of the good we do. Anonymity is necessary and nurtures personal humility, but erasing yourself from the public list of do-gooders is detrimental for the greater good.

When is doubt, keep this rule in mind: Publicity that will cause more good to happen is certainly appropriate - and then find something greater to do anonymously.

 

The Door That is Always Open

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This week, a beautiful video was circulated on social media: A compilation of people thanking the Rebbe for his blessings.

The setting was “Sunday Dollars.” Starting on his 84th birthday in 1986, the Rebbe stood in the hall adjacent to his office every Sunday as thousands came to seek his blessing and counsel. The encounters were brief and the Rebbe handed each person a dollar bill to be given to charity.

Many experienced miraculous results and appropriately returned to express their appreciation. These clips are candid and emotional and the Rebbe’s responses inspire me each time I watch.

The Rebbe expected of the beneficiaries of his blessings to report even better news in the future. The couple who miraculously gave birth to children were blessed to have more and the gentleman whose business venture succeeded against all odds was told to make even more money to be used in a healthy manner.

These recorded encounters are a microcosm of the hundreds of thousands who turned to the Rebbe each year for blessing and guidance - by mail or in person. He lovingly handled each request as if it was his singular concern. No person too small, no request insignificant.

Communicating with the Rebbe was an interaction of souls. He saw the core of every person and sought to reveal the divine spark within. This is the intellectual premise for the Rebbe’s infinite love for every Jew and he gifted us this knowledge through his countless Torah teachings so that we too can learn to love unconditionally.

This dynamic continues today. Although the Rebbe’s physical presence has left our world 24 years ago, the unending stream of humanity that continues to flock to the Ohel, the Rebbe’s holy resting place, at all hours of the day, every day of the year, bears testimony to the Rebbe’s continued and ever stronger impact on our world.

The soul is immortal. Every level of Torah scholarship is replete with reference to the fact that the truly righteous continue to live beyond their physical limitations. Today we can communicate with the Rebbe just as before and experience the same joy, hope and refreshing empowerment the people you just watched in the video merited - close to three decades ago. By writing a letter to the Rebbe and having it placed at the Ohel, we access a heavenly door that is always open to us all.

Please click here to learn more about writing to the Rebbe.

As we observe the Rebbe’s 24th Yartzeit this Shabbat, I invite you to learn more of the Rebbe’s teachings and to reflect on how you can participate in the Rebbe’s mission to prepare our world for the coming of Moshiach when peace and prosperity will abound for all.

 

Searching for the Tenth

 

“Can you be the tenth?” The traditional conversation starter whenever Jews gather for prayer services and are searching for a Minyan. Judaism stipulates that certain rituals and prayers may be recited only in a group of ten Jewish men over the age of thirteen.

The convenience or difficulty of gathering a Minyan is not necessarily determined by the size of the Jewish community. Obviously smaller communities have a greater challenge gathering this quorum three times daily, but I have seen many a large synagogue frustratingly search for the “tenth man.”

Why do we need ten for the Minyan?

You might be surprised to discover that the definition of a minyan is derived by way of a series of Torah rules-of-logic that lead us to this week’s parsha.

As the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land, they requested Moshe send spies to scout the terrain and report their findings. Reluctantly, he tapped twelve men for the mission and sent them on their way.

Their impressions were not unanimous. Ten of them concluded that entering the Land of Israel was certain suicide and roused the nation to rebellion. The other two, Yehoshua and Calev pleaded with the nation to reconsider their new position and confidently and passionately proclaimed that the conquest would succeed with the help of G-d. Alas, their pleas were unheeded and the people wailed for an entire night.

The fallout from the spies’ treason was severe. An entire generation was barred from entering the Holy Land and that night of meaningless sorrow lives on in infamy as Tisha B’av - the day of Jewish tragedy and grief.

The Torah record of G-d’s response to the debacle includes this verse: “How much longer (must I bear) this evil congregation (of spies) who are provoking (the Jewish people) against Me?”

They were a group of ten men and G-d referred to them as a congregation. From this verse we learn that ten men is the definition of a Minyan.

Considering the damage these men inflicted on our people does it not seem inappropriate to derive such an integral element of our religious rituals from their quorum?

Chassidus explains that while their actions had severe repercussions their motives were actually positive. So long the Israelites remained in the desert, their religious commitment and spiritual experience was assured. Nourished by heavenly bread, hydrated by miraculous water and protected by the Clouds of Glory, they were immersed in the divine pursuit of Torah study without distractions. Entering the Land would mark a new reality for the fledgling nation with many distractions and the spies felt that it would cause the spiritual and religious demise of the fledgling nation.

Their conclusion was tragically wrong but their initial motive was noble and expresses an important lesson for all time. Before engaging with the world to reveal divinity within the chaos and turbulence of the mundane reality, one must first be empowered through immersion in prayer and Torah study.

Starting off the day with wrapping Tefillin, giving Tzedakah and spending some time in prayer and Torah study transforms the rest of the day into one of divine purpose and success.

 

Keeping Things Normal

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For generations, the Menorah has been a generic Jewish symbol. As described in the beginning of this week’s parsha, kindling the Menorah was an integral part of the daily Temple service. After the Chanukah miracle, it has become synonymous with sacrifice, celebration and continuity.

Our sages describe the symbolism of “flames” in our relationship with G-d in this cryptic statement:

“G-d says: There are two flames. The Torah is My flame and the soul is your flame. If you preserve My flame (the Torah), I will preserve your flame (the soul).”

On the surface this sounds very intimidating. Follow the Torah, or else…

However, Chassidus reveals the truth of this statement and provides us with the roadmap to a healthy and balanced Jewish life.

A flame needs to be monitored for two opposite reasons. To ensure (a) that it is not extinguished by the elements and (b) so that it does not blow out of control and cause horrific damage.

The spiritual equivalent of a flame is spiritual inspiration. Everyone has a soul, but then there is the “inspired soul” - a burning passion for Judaism and love for Torah. This is a wonderful experience which, if not properly channeled, can have two negative outcomes.

(a) It can flame-out and quickly dissipate. Gyms around the nation fill up during January and are empty by mid February. New Year champagne and fireworks motivate many to commit to a healthier lifestyle but the resolutions last slightly longer than the champagne bubbles and sparkling firecrackers.

The same often occurs with our religious resolutions because our environment and the constant demands of life are rarely conducive to immersive spiritual consciousness.

(b) The intense devotion can destroy relationships and ruin important components of life. The unbridled enthusiasm of finding truth can cause one to behave in ways that are emotionally destructive, physically unhealthy and financially ruinous.

Therefore G-d advises us to “preserve His flame.” Through following Torah’s instructions, things that can be spiritually distracting become spiritually nourishing. When food is kosher, then eating can be a mitzvah. Making an honest living and apportioning charity appropriately transforms everyday work into a holy endeavor.

And lest you think that being a devout Jew is reason to neglect your family, health and financial stability - remember that Torah obligates us to honor our parents, preserve our health and work throughout the week.

Follow Torah’s formula and it will all work out. When we preserve the integrity of Torah - our own inspiration becomes anchored, balanced and enduring.

 

 

 

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