Rabbis' Blog

Judaism: An Integrated Experience

In my line of work I am frequently asked why G-d does not speak to us directly. If, for example, eating Kosher is so important, why do we not receive direct divine communication with all the detailed laws?

If G-d could speak to Moses why doesn’t He speak to me?

True. G-d could speak to us directly. But the last time it happened, we begged G-d to stop and never do it again!

Fifty days after the wondrous exodus from Egypt the Jewish nation experienced “Matan Torah” - the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. G-d communicated the first two of the Ten Commandments to the millions of people gathered at the mountain - an experience so intense and transcendent that they clamored for the spectacle to end.

Here is how it is recorded in this week’s parsha (Exodus 20:15-16):

And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar. They said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let G-d not speak with us lest we die."

G-d approved of this arrangement and from then on all divine communication happened through Moses and the subsequent prophets. While the revelation at Mt. Sinai was necessary to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Moses and his spiritual heirs were the legitimate transmitters of G-d’s will, it was meant to be a one-time event - never to happen again.

Why did G-d not make us all Moses-like, save us the trauma and continue to communicate with us directly?

Because Moses and the prophets are not regular people and our life experience is not meant to replicate theirs. Most mortals are created with an affinity to materialism while prophets get over that stuff from the get-go. See how Maimonides defines a prophet here.

But we are not all expected to live as prophets. In fact the Torah was given specifically to mortals susceptible to theft, murder, promiscuity, falsehood, jealousy and much more. Judaism is not an intense spiritual experience reserved for holy places and holy times. It is the very premise of life, integrated in every level of our consciousness, down the nitty gritty details of our eating habits and our most shameful impulses.

Applying Torah laws and ideals in the most mundane elements of life is the whole reason we were created in the first place and if we were all prophets, that experience would be moot.

So embrace your regularness and the opportunity to make our regular world a bit more divine. All it takes is learning some more Torah and doing another Mitzvah.

Getting Lost on our Road Trip

Last month we took a road trip to visit my brother’s family in Wichita, Kansas.

Since paper maps are a thing of the past, I opened the Waze app on my phone and discovered that the fastest and most direct route would be to drive on the 54 from El Paso straight to Wichita. With such simple directions I felt it unnecessary to pay attention to the app throughout the 12 hour ride.

At Vaughn, New Mexico the 54 makes a sharp left turn, while continuing straight on the road takes you south on the 285 — the exact opposite direction of our destination. I missed the turn and when I finally glanced at Waze close to 45 minutes later, we were rerouted through Amarillo and Oklahoma City, with an extra two hours to our estimated arrival time.

We were initially bummed, but got over it quickly and enjoyed the rest of our extended road time. (Paying attention to Waze!)

The story of Exodus features the very first GPS navigational system used by millions of people. The Torah records (Exodus 13:21–22) that as the Israelites left Egypt, G-d directed their journey to the Promised Land with a divine pillar of cloud during the day and a divine pillar of fire that led them through the night. Wherever these pillars went, the Israelites followed.

It would seem logical for G-d to direct the Israelites — anxious to inherit their homeland — on the fastest and most direct route possible. An amateur reading of a map of the area reveals that the Israelites traveled a roundabout route to Israel. In fact, the Red Sea is in the opposite direction!

However, this course was intentional. As the Torah states (Exodus 13:17): G-d did not lead them through Philistia, because it was nearby. For G-d said “The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.”

Why does the Torah explain G-d’s rationale in determining the itinerary? Because it provides the most valuable lesson you may ever need in life.

There were two options in mapping out the Israelite advance to Israel: The direct route or the roundabout route. Although the direct route was the swiftest, it was also the most challenging for the Israelites at the time. Since it was possible that they were incapable of handling the heat of battle and would retreat back to slavery, G-d steered them away from there. Even though the alternate route was also very challenging — getting stuck at the Red Sea wasn’t fun — G-d was certain they could handle it.

Whatever your circumstances, no matter how challenging they may be, know that G-d leads us only on paths He is certain we can succeed. Even if you find yourself wedged between a roaring sea and a murderous army — there is certainly a way forward.

Follow G-d’s instructions meticulously and even the worst situations may result in the greatest of miracles.

Putting it All on the Line

As a child I was raised with the stories of Chassidic resistance behind the Iron Curtain. About the heroic men and women who sacrificed everything in order to educate their children Torah and Jewish traditions. Not only did they risk their lives to make Judaism available to their own families, they made superhuman efforts to educate and assist others in remaining loyal Jews.

My ancestors were involved in these dangerous endeavors and I was privileged to hear first-hand accounts from the protagonists themselves.

Clearly, they were directly inspired by the example set forth by the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, whose Yartzeit will be observed on 10 Shevat, this coming Wednesday. He became the leader of the global Chabad Lubavitch movement in the spring of 1920, after his father’s passing, just as the Communists were beginning their reign of terror over Russia.

As the authorities destroyed organized Jewish life throughout the Soviet Union, the Previous Rebbe transformed his community of Chassidim into a massive network of activists, ready to preserve Jewish life underground at all costs.

The main targets of the anti-religious Soviets were the Jewish schools, and the Previous Rebbe and his Chassidim worked tirelessly, at great personal risk, to respond to this specific crisis.

When a Jewish school was shuttered, a Chabad Chossid showed up in town and provided Jewish classes for the local children. When he was caught and sent to the firing squad, a replacement was arranged immediately.

In 1927, the Previous Rebbe was arrested on charges of treason, and his life was spared only through tremendous miracles. His cardinal sin was providing Jewish education for the very young.

Many wondered why the Previous Rebbe, a venerable scholar in all areas of Torah, and a mentor and teacher to so many, chose to endanger every other demographic of Jewish life for the sake of ensuring young children learned the Alef Bet.

In this week’s Parsha, when Pharaoh realized that Egypt was on the brink, he tried negotiating with Moshe: Perhaps the adults can take a three day journey into the desert to serve G-d while the children remained as collateral to guarantee their return? Moshe refused, because although adults actually perform the service, the children are an integral part of the community.

Later in the Parsha, when G-d communicates the instructions of Pesach and other Mitzvot, He mentions on three separate occasions that the children will ask questions about the rituals and we are obligated to engage them on their level. Because education is the cornerstone of Judaism.

Just as in times of religious persecution the Previous Rebbe was ready to sacrifice everything else for the sake of the youth, today, in times of religious freedom, the Jewish education of our children must be our greatest priority.

It's More Fun that Way

I just visited a bedridden elderly gentleman. When I asked him how he is doing, he responded with a smile, “Pretty good considering the circumstances. But when you view circumstances as challenges to overcome, it’s more fun that way!”

His good cheer was a pleasure and our visit was quite enjoyable for both of us. He had so much wisdom to share and we had the opportunity to do the mitzvah of Tefillin together. But the most important lesson I walked away with was his perspective on circumstances: They are defined by your response.

In this week’s parsha we learn of when the Jewish people in Egyptian slavery reached rock bottom. It did not happen when there was no apparent redeemer on the horizon. Moshe had already arrived in Egypt with a message of freedom and had been verified by the experts to be legitimate.

However, when he started fulfilling G-d’s mission to impress upon Pharaoh to release the Jewish slaves, everything went downhill from there. Pharaoh made life unimaginably miserable for everyone and even Moshe was mortified with his failure.

G-d sent Moshe to the people with a newly worded message of freedom that surpassed all previous messages in confidence and divine revelation - but alas, his words fell on deaf ears. The situation was so bleak that they could not bring themselves to pay attention to the confirmed messenger of G-d.

It was at this low moment that everything started to change. The ten plagues commenced - a watershed moment in world history. Never before had the world witnessed such clear divine intervention in nature.

For example, during the first plague, the water did not just merely turn to blood. It became blood only for the Egyptians and not for the Israelites. This had nothing to do with different locations and water sources for if an Egyptian forced his Israelite slave to sip out of the same glass of water/blood drawn from the Nile River together with him, the Egyptian would drink blood and the Jew would drink water. The only way the desperate Egyptians were able to drink water during the week-long plague was if they would buy it from the Israelites.

The rest of the plagues were no less wondrous and the ultimate redemption that followed has ramification till today.

The lesson is clear. When the circumstances are the worst possible, all is not lost. Respond to them as challenges meant to be mastered and the results will be as wondrous and redeeming as Passover.

 Apparently they more fun that way as well.

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.