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Rabbis' Blog

Leap Forward. You Can!

 

Once upon a time a king lived in a castle surrounded by a moat filled with alligators. One day he invited the citizens of his kingdom to the castle, promising them a spectacular show.

“Whoever will swim across the moat and reach the other side alive can choose to have either half the royal treasury or my daughter's hand in marriage!”

The offer was quite generous but the stakes could not be higher. Jumping into the moat was certain suicide!

After several tense minutes, there was a loud splash as one man started swimming frantically across the moat. The dumbstruck crowd watched the display of bravery bordering on lunacy and as the daring swimmer reached the other side broke out into thunderous cheers.

“Bravo!” the king cried. “Which prize will you choose? Do you want the money?”

“No!”

“Do you want to marry the princess?”

“No!”

Befuddled the king asked, “So what do you want as a reward?”

“To find out who pushed me in!”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allow us to experience a spiritual high and many feel the urge to become better people and more committed Jews. But then comes the day after. Returning to the routine of life we can sometimes reexamine the resolutions we made during our moments of inspiration and start to doubt our ability to live up to them.

What now?

This Shabbat will mark the Yartzeit-Hilulo (anniversary of passing) of the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel, known as the Rebbe Maharash. Life in Czarist Russia in the late 1800s was a terrifying time of state sponsored pogroms against Jewish communities throughout the kingdom.

As the leader of the general Jewish community, the Rebbe spearheaded intensive efforts to revert the terrible decrees. He travelled extensively to meet with government officials and influential oligarchs to bring an end to the bloodshed and destruction.

He is quoted saying “The world believes that when faced with a challenge, if there is no way around it or under it - then you jump over it. I say that you should jump.over it from the onset - (in the original Hebrew-Yiddish) Lechatchila Ariber!”

This was his modus operandi during his lifetime and the eternal legacy he left for us all. No need to speculate on questions of ability and self worth. If you are presented with an opportunity to do good - go right ahead!

This brings perspective to the post High Holiday blues. Unsure if you are able to live up to all your commitments? Jump right in and start swimming. The alligators of failure are all in your head.

No time for second guessing because we have a collective mission to accomplish and success depends on every one of us.

 

Context is Everything

 

An important part of my monthly routine is visiting with fellow Jews serving time at the local federal prison for crimes they committed. During the hour we say some prayers with Tefillin, learn Torah, sing songs and have vibrant discussions.

Since the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Ten Days of Teshuvah the topic of our conversation was “Teshuvah.”

We quickly realized that translating the word “Teshuvah” as repentance causes various complications.

Repentance is defined as “deep sorrow, compunction, or contrition for a past sin, wrongdoing, or the like.” In that case, do perfect people have no connection with the “Ten Days of Teshuvah?” Or perhaps is the calendar implying that everyone is a sinner? Whatever happened to giving the benefit of the doubt?

This is another example of a profoundly empowering Jewish idea getting lost in translation. “Teshuvah” does not mean to repent. Rather the root of the word is “Shav” - return.

Once in conversation I was asked why some Jews are such hypocrites that they will pray in the synagogue three time a day and eat only Kosher, but behave terribly in business!

“What is the hypocrisy?” I prodded.

“If they are such thieves why do they bother praying?”

“Why do you consider their prayer and Kosher diet hypocrisy?” I countered. “Perhaps cheating in business is their hypocrisy?”

At the core, everyone is pure and wants to do the right thing. Circumstances and experiences may cause us to get distracted from staying true to our essence and lead us down a path of bad decisions. Certainly everyone is responsible for his or her actions, but those deficiencies can never define who we are. Our core remains the same.

This definition should not be taken for granted. In fact, when the Baal Shem Tov started teaching that Teshuvah is for everyone, he faced stiff resistance from the religious elite for insinuating that the scholars are guilty of sin. Their misunderstanding was the result of a lack of context for the role of Teshuvah and its power.

The verb of Teshuvah is not limited to sinners. Everyone needs to return to their pristine original selves. To reveal the essential connection with G-d not defined by behavior or claimed beliefs.

Now is the time to reveal that inner connection and find ways to access this purity throughout the  year. The good resolutions you make this week will be the vehicle through which the divine energy available now will be accessible every day of the coming year.

 

Tishrei: Bottoms Up!

Authors know that the right title can propel their books to the top of the bestseller lists or render them unreadable. Seasoned journalists will tell you that constructing the perfect headline can spell the difference between winning a Pulitzer or having another collection of 2000 words floating around on the internet.

This is true about all languages, but the power of words in the Torah context is a world unto its own. Lashon Hakodesh - the Holy Tongue - better known as Biblical Hebrew, is a divine language containing endless layers of meaning. Each word can be dissected in myriads of ways to reveal tremendously profound messages pertinent to our daily lives.

The month playing host to the many holidays on the horizon is called “Tishrei.” Just by analyzing the construct of the word, knowing just the Hebrew Alphabet nursery song, reveals the essential message of all four holidays celebrated within this month.

“Tishrei” is spelled with four letters. “Tav” - the last letter of the alphabet; “Shin” - the second to last; “Reish” - the third to last; and finally “Yud” - which is closer to the beginning of the order.

Now, imagine the Hebrew Alphabet in a vertical line. Spelling the word “Tishrei” would mean starting from the very bottom and consistently moving upwards. (A simple comparison in English would be spelling a word like this: ZYXJ.)

This is the theme of all the holidays we are about to celebrate: the obligation to move consistently upwards.

Our relationship with G-d is a two way street. On Pesach we celebrate G-d’s boundless love for us regardless of our spiritual status; we were redeemed from slavery despite our lack of merit. The direction is from above to below.

But Tishrei is from the bottom up. The holidays therein represent the human effort to reach for the divine.

The shrill cry of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah expresses our preparedness to submit to G-d’s kingship and behave accordingly. The atonement we achieve on Yom Kippur happens through our efforts to reach the core truth of our souls. During Sukkot we actively pursue an all encompassing unity with every Jew and Simchat Torah marks the completion of a yearly cycle of Torah study.

“Tishrei” is about orientation. True renewal can only happen when we reach for the very bottom and elevate it to the greatest heights.

Take Off Your Sunglasses

sunglasses-clog-pores-1.jpg

The season is changing. Everyone talks about the weather and I’ve heard people complain that they will miss the heat while others look forward to cooler weather.

We tend to change our wardrobe and certain habits with the season and, although El Paso is the “Sun City,” I expect to see less sunglasses around as we get more clouds and wind.

This week, while listening to the Rebbe’s pre Rosh Hashanah address from 1980, I discovered a fascinating correlation between removing sunglasses and Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the sixth day of creation when Adam, the first human being, was created 5,779 years ago. While the beginning of creation (five days earlier) is a worthy milestone to observe, the big deal revolves around Adam. Why?

Creator and Creation are opposites. The Creator is infinite and omnipresent, and Creation is finite and confined. In order for G-d to create our measured and perfect universe as we know it, it was necessary to shield creation from G-d’s brilliant infinity.

Here is an analogy we can easily relate to. The benefits we derive from the sun are obvious. Light and warmth are only the beginning of its impact on our lives. Yet, looking directly at the sun is dangerous and destructive. To get a better look at it we need to wear sunglasses to filter the brilliant sunlight so that our delicate eyeballs remain functional.

The same is true with creation. G-d desired a world where everything has a defined space and time. Only the finite hand of the human body can wear Tefillin and only the wool of a physical sheep can be used for the mitzvah of tzitzit. Therefore, the divine filter called “nature” shields the world from expiring into the infinite divine brilliance.

Here is the catch. Because we are born into this filtered universe and live with it all the time, it is easy to forget the truth behind the filter. It is possible to imagine that worldly matters can be a real impediment to serving G-d. Making a living may not jive with Shabbos observance, daily Torah study or giving Tzedaka generously and keeping Kosher may interfere with the ever important social scene.

Such a mindset is comparable to the guy with shades convincing himself that the sun is not so powerful after all and really has a dark tinge to it. Naive!

This is why Rosh Hashanah is observed on the day Adam was created. On that day, coming to his senses, he immediately perceived the truth and called upon every element of creation to crown G-d as King of the Universe. He saw past the ever present proverbial “sunglasses” and shared his knowledge with the world.

Next week, we, his descendents, are called upon to do the same. As we remove our sunglasses in anticipation for fall, let us commit this coming year to perceiving the truth of reality. Observe an extra Mitzvah, invest more time in Torah study, give more generously to Tzedakah and share the truth with everyone.

 

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