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Rabbis' Blog

What I learned from the Military


All things military can be fascinating. Air Force jets, tanks and battle gear can capture the imagination of kids and adults alike. Battleground heroism and patriotism are the stuff great stories have been made out of for ages.

War is horrible, but it is an inevitable part of reality so long there is fragmentation and competition in our world and the Torah in this week’s parsha sets forth the divine guidelines for a Jewish militia. Whereas these laws are unfortunately relevant in the literal sense, they are also metaphorically relatable to the personal and communal challenges we face on a daily basis.

In fact, when G-d redeemed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery they were referred to as Tzivot Hashem - G-d’s Army. Since the era marked the birth of the Jewish nation, their title reflected the fact that to accomplish their new a mission to the world, a military mindset is vital.

Here are two elements of army life that are necessary for Jewish success.

Obedience: Soldiers are trained to follow orders unquestioningly. This is not a cruel ploy to rob  human beings of their natural right to investigate and understand, rather it is a crucial ingredient to military success.

The foot soldier’s perspective of the battle is extremely limited. Only the commanders who are privy to the finest intelligence and real time updates of the entire front are capable of making the best strategic decisions. During battle there is no time for explanations and the soldier must follow orders first and ask questions much later.

The same is true in Judaism. When G-d offered the Torah to the Jewish people, the magical words of acceptance were “Naaseh Ve’nishma” - “We will observe the commandments (first) and we will understand their meaning (afterwards).” Once you become aware of a Mitzvah that needs to get done, do it! Rest assured that there is inspirational depth and flavor to it all, and with the proper investment of time and effort you will appreciate it all in due time.

Courage: Although soldiers are trained to follow orders, there are times when the realities on the ground call for flexibility, innovation and the courage to make important decisions instantaneously - all while carefully following military protocol and the rules of engagement. The specific tactics of how to accomplish the mission will inevitably change as the battle rages and such flexibility demands much courage.

As Jews, we fight a constant battle against assimilation. It can a personal challenge or a communal one. When unforeseen challenges and opportunities arise we need to have the courage and flexibility to adapt accordingly with speed - all while carefully following the protocol and rules of engagement as they are spelled out in the Shulchan Aruch - the Code of Jewish Law.

We’ve all been drafted 3,330 years ago. Let’s give this fight all we’ve got.


Are You in Control?


Taking his seat in his chambers, the judge faced the opposing lawyers. "So," he said, "I have been presented, by both of you, with a bribe." Both lawyers squirmed uncomfortably. "You, attorney John, gave me $15,000. And you, attorney Campos, gave me $10,000."

The judge reached into his pocket and pulled out a check. He handed it to John. "Now then, I'm returning $5,000, and we're going to decide this case solely on its merits."

This week's parshah delineates the Jewish judicial process. It is a mitzvah to appoint judges to determine the law and police to enforce the law in every Jewish city and province. These guardians of the law are held to the highest moral standards and the integrity of the entire system depends on the personal honesty of each individual appointee.

Aside for ensuring that the judge be of the highest caliber, the Torah minces no words to clearly spell out every detail of the courtroom process to ensure it is done in a way that is transparently fair and just.

"You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words" (Deuteronomy 16:19). Each one of these instructions addresses another area that may be left to interpretation and manipulation. The Torah leaves no loopholes for corruption.

While the obligation to set up courts of justice is a communal one, there is a pertinent lesson to be learned from this mitzvah in our personal lives. The Torah writes "You shall place judges and police at all your gates." This literally refers to the gates of cities but can metaphorically be applied to the gates of our bodies.

Our eyes, ears and mouth are the “gates” through which outside influences enter our minds, hearts and bodies. A Jew must monitor what goes through these gates. Before looking at something, listening to something or eating something we need to judge the merits and demerits of the issue in question. And even after determining that something is inappropriate through the metaphorical "judge," we must have the moral strength to enforce this decision through the metaphorical "police."

Our inner "judge" is nurtured through constant Torah study and our "police" is nurtured through proper meditation and application of Torah's lessons.

Vigilance is paramount to leading a healthy and balanced Jewish life.

Not Just a Camp


A few hours ago we concluded two spirited weeks of Camp Gan Israel 2018. Close to 50 children had a unforgettable summer experience. Thanks to our incredible group of staff from Brooklyn and El Paso, we were able to deliver high powered Judaism in such a fashion that the kids loved every minute of it.

I am often asked why most Chabad camps throughout the world have the same name, and why specifically that name. Although it is certainly good marketing practices to have a unified brand, every Chabad camp operates independently, but is so similar for the same reason - the name.

In 1956, the Lubavitcher Rebbe established the first Chabad overnight camp in the Catskills in upstate New York. The name given was “Gan Yisrael” which literally means “the Garden of Israel.” The name Yisrael is a tribute to the founder of the Chassidic movement Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov.

The Rebbe explained that the children in the camp will be educated in the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov. And just as saplings growing in a garden benefit from every small enhancement of their treatment, the campers in Camp Gan Israel will blossom and grow as a result of the few short weeks they are educated in the Baal Shem Tov’s ways.

The single overnight camp morphed into a giant network of overnight and day camps all over the world that provide an awesome summer experience to hundreds of thousands of campers each year. And most importantly, enable them to benefit from the refreshing Jewish energy pulsing through every part of the daily schedule.

The essence of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings can be found in this week’s parsha. Moshe declares to the Israelites, “You are the children of G-d” (Deuteronomy 14:1). Those four words (in the original Hebrew) found their greatest expression and meaning when the Baal Shem Tov started to reveal the true essence of a Jew. A child does not lose his or her birth rite due to circumstances or bad choices. Regardless of how far away a child may run, Mom and Dad yearn for their return and love them throughout.

He would travel to Jewish communities far and wide, reach out to the simple and forgotten Jews to encourage and inspire them to serve G-d in the best way they could. He revealed the academic and emotional framework through which we are capable of viewing every Jew for the pure essence of their soul.

It is this spirit that animates every Camp Gan Israel in the world and it is this passion that fueled the last two weeks of Jewish pride and power here in El Paso. It is our greatest blessing to see the campers take what they have learned, share it with others and live up to these ideals throughout the year.

Thank you to our supporters, friends and volunteers for making this year’s camp a reality and we look forward to feeling the camp spirit throughout the year.


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