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Rabbis' Blog

Relationship Status: Nuanced

Relationships are an art and no two are the same. The nuanced relationship between G-d and the Jewish People is on full display in this week’s parsha.

It opens with Moshe sharing the fact that he prayed incessantly to be allowed to enter the Promised Land until he was told that by doing so he would forsake the generation of Israelites he had led out of Egypt forty years earlier. While this anecdote emphasizes Moshe’s devotion as a leader, it is a stark reminder of the tragic sin that prolonged their dessert journey for forty years and caused the premature death of an entire generation.

The parsha continues to describe the terrible tragedies of exile that would befall the Jewish people in the future as a result of forsaking G-d’s covenant. These verses are so poignant that they are the Torah reading for Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of both Holy Temples.

But the parsha also plays host to the story of Matan Torah, the revelation at Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. Moshe retells the many details of that momentous event, when G-d gifted us His precious Torah with unbridled love and trust. In addition, we read the famous paragraph of Shema Yisrael - the essential declaration of our faith in G-d.

In one reading, we encounter the highest and lowest moments.

It is a juxtaposition that forces us to discover the essential bond between G-d and the Jewish People that transcends all circumstances.

This past Sunday, during the fast of Tisha B’Av, someone shared with me recording of a talk the Rebbe gave 34 years ago. Quoting from an important Jewish text, the Rebbe elaborated on the fact that when the Holy Temple started to burn on the afternoon of the 9th of Av in 70CE, the Jews witnessing the destruction started to rejoice! How does this make any sense?

When the Romans entered Jerusalem and started massacring the multitudes of Jews, the Jews feared that their total annihilation would happen right then and there. But when they saw the Holy Temple burning, they realized that G-d was venting his fury only on the structural symbol of Judaism and not on Judaism itself. Although the greatest Jewish tragedy was unfolding in front of their eyes, it was from that point on that they knew that Am Yisrael Chai! - Judaism will endure forever!

Because despite the fact that our actions caused divine retribution and we became unworthy of having consistent and clear divine revelation in the structure of the Holy Temple, our relationship with G-d is not limited to our behavior. It weathers the storms of sin and destruction and will one day shine brightly forever with the coming of Moshiach.

We must not sit back and wait for this to happen. The process of revealing this essential bond depends on our active participation. By increasing out Torah study, Mitzvah observance and ensuring our fellow Jews do the same, we expedite the redemption - for real.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Levi Greenberg



The sight of a wreaking-ball swinging into action or dynamite exploding in a building evokes mixed emotions. The gaping emptiness that immediately follows evokes nostalgia for what was lost and onlookers perceive only destruction and ruin.

But a controlled demolition is typically a cause for celebration. The owner intends to replace the old edifice with something far superior. The current carnage provides the platform for future growth.

This Shabbat occurs on Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of Av) – the Jewish national day of mourning. Every major Jewish tragedy can be traced back to this ominous date. Both Holy Temples were destroyed on this day in 423 BCE and 69 CE respectively, and this serves as the most significant symbol of Jewish tragedy.

When Tisha B’Av occurs on a weekday, in addition to being observed as a 25 hour fast, we abstain from all physical pleasures and spend considerable time bemoaning what was lost and the tragic realities of exile. But since fasting and mourning is prohibited on Shabbat, this Shabbat will be celebrated like all others, notwithstanding the fact that it is such a profoundly sad day, and the fast will be observed a day later.

This schedule is not random. When the sages established the Jewish calendar they ensured that specific dates never occur on certain days of the week to preserve their significant observance. Would it not be appropriate to engineer the calendar in a way that Tisha B’Av should never occur on Shabbat so that it may be observed properly?

Tradition relates that in every generation there is one person who can be Moshiach, and as the Holy Temple burned in Jerusalem, the potential redeemer was born. For this reason we do not recite confessional prayers on Tisha B’Av, and we recite the inspirational prayer of Nacheim which concludes with praising G-d as the “Consoler of Zion and Builder of Jerusalem.”

So Tisha B’Av contains these two seemingly contrasting themes of exile and redemption: The destruction of the Temple (exile) and the birthday of Moshiach (redemption). Whereas on a regular Tisha B’Av the intense mourning and fasting takes center stage and one needs to pay close attention to discover the observance of Moshiach’s birthday – this year is different. Although the commemoration of the destruction is postponed until Sunday, commemorating Moshiach’s birthday remains on schedule and becomes the overarching theme and celebration of this Shabbat.

As in the analogy of the wreaking-ball, an informed observer understands that it paves the way for previously unachievable growth; we must always remember that the destruction of Tisha B’Av paves the way for Moshiach’s arrival.

Tisha B’Av on Shabbat provides us the opportunity to focus less on the tragic past and more on the brightest future. Just as our negative behavior caused the destruction of the Holy Temple and this 2,000 year long exile; it is our choices and behavior that will reverse it all.

Consider adding more minutes of Torah study to your schedule, doing an extra Mitzvah and giving more charity, because these are the things that will expedite Moshiach’s imminent arrival, ushering in an era of global peace and tranquility for all.

Sharing Our Tactics


Some friends of mine facilitated a cool podcast this week about the Mitzvah Tank experience. Starting in the mid-seventies, many large metropolitan areas have been graced with the scene of RVs converted into makeshift synagogues or Jewish libraries parked at major pedestrian thoroughfares.

Chabad rabbinical students man these mobiles, asking passersby if they are Jewish and offer the men to wrap Tefillin and gift women candles to light before Shabbat evening. The moniker “Mitzvah Tank” evolved early on in tribute to the ability for these roving Chabad installations to bring Jewish observance to frontiers previously unimaginable – similar to the role of standard tanks in battle.

Three Jews with diverse experiences on the receiving end of the “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” question, rode along on a Mitzvah Tank to see what makes these inspired young men tick.

They schmooze about Jewish identity, pride and culture, but mainly seek to understand the psychology behind approaching strangers and popping Mitzvahs. Dovid, Motti and Mordechai spell it all out very clearly and I encourage you to hear what they have to say here.

But I’d like to share with you a lesson from this week’s parsha that illuminates an important aspect of what has become a basic staple of Jewish life today.

We learn of the Mitzvah of Nedarim – Oaths. Here is how it works. If one feels it necessary to refrain from all gluten, for example, a firm resolution is often sorely insufficient to keeping this impulse in check. So Judaism provides the nuclear option of making an oath. When an individual makes a proper oath not to eat gluten, it assumes the status of a holy sacrifice for this individual alone. This makes his or her donut munching far more devastating than unhealthy or impulsive behavior. It now becomes sacrilegious!

To be clear, this provision applies only to foods and behaviors permitted in Jewish law. In the event that these kosher things can be physically or spiritually detrimental, the power of the “Neder – Oath” may be invoked.

From a philosophical perspective, a fascinating irony emerges: A powerful way to neutralize the negative effects of something is by making it holy!

How does this all connect to the boys on the Mitzvah Tanks?

Unfortunately, there are many Jews lacking the opportunity to observe many Mitzvot for a host of reasons. So they spend their free time from studies seeking out these Jews to make them aware of how important they are to G-d and how precious their one Mitzvah is to Judaism at large. They are neutralizing the negativity of religious apathy though emphasizing the crucial value of each and every Jew.

Is this a Chabad tactic? No. It is simply the truth.

Winning With the Lottery

A few weeks ago my children asked me to choose a number from one to ten. Sizing up the situation, I realized they both wanted to play with a certain toy and decided that the best way to resolve the standoff was to make a raffle. Whoever chose the number I had in mind got the toy.

I’m not sure where they learned this brilliant solution and I was relieved the loser accepted the results without complaint. Conventional negotiations would have sapped all my energy and everyone would have been miserable. Something about a raffle helps all ages appreciate even the most absurd outcome – just because.

In this week’s parsha we learn of G-d’s instructions to the Israelites how to divide the Land of Israel.

“A tribe with a larger population will receive a larger portion and a tribe with fewer members will receive a smaller portion.”

Sounds fair.

Then the Torah continues, “The Land should be allocated according to the “Goral” – the raffle.”

The Talmud explains that Moshe gathered representatives from the tribes and apportioned the regions based on the diverse topography of the land and the results of the most recent census. Once it was all figured out, a formal lottery was conducted. Cubes inscribed with the tribes’ names were in one box and cubes inscribed with the regions in another.

The representatives were honored to pick out a cube from each box and miraculously the two cubes randomly chosen matched perfectly! They each picked out their tribe and the region they had already negotiated.

What was the purpose of this miraculous formality and, most importantly, how is this relevant to us today?

Our connection to Eretz Yisrael is deeper than a national homeland. It is the “Holy Land” because it embodies the perfection of Mitzvah observance as prescribed in the Torah. In a broader sense it represents the entirety of our collective mission in life; to imbue every aspect of reality with divine purpose and inspiration.

Everyone is given a mission based on their talents, strengths and circumstances. But when faced with certain challenges, regular negotiations stop working and that’s where the lottery comes in.

This region is mine just because; this mitzvah will happen just because.

I recently saw a clip of Anthony Bourdain’s visit to the Kotel for CNN’s “Parts Unknown”. He admits that he was never in a synagogue and is not a believer. “But that doesn’t make me any less Jewish… Apparently the guys at the Wall don’t think so either.” He was approached by a Chabad Chossid and offered to wrap Tefillin for the first time in his life.

“I am instinctively hostile to devotion… but when they grabbed hold of me and, in such a non-judgmental way [projected that] G-d’s happy to have you – hear you go… man, my treachery is complete.”

The Chossid did not negotiate with Bourdain, he tapped into his Jewishness by lottery – just because.

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