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Rabbis' Blog

The artwork only you can create

In the spring of 1977, the world renowned artist Yaacov Agam gifted an album with selections of his artwork to the Rebbe in honor of his 75th birthday. The Rebbe sent him a letter of appreciation, commenting on the originality of his art and reflected upon a unique lesson we can learn from the way he inscribed a beautiful dedication in the album jacket with artistic shadow letters.

Letters arranged in words and sentences reveal ideas, but when drawn with shadows the letters become more impressive and pleasing to read.

In life we experience revealed and apparent goodness as well as situations best compared to dark and cold shadows. Instinctively we wish the shadows never existed and only the revealed goodness remained, but this is beyond our control. We can however be the artists who expertly position the shadows in ways that magnify and beautify the goodness in our lives.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the birth of Yitzchok and Rivka’s children. Her pregnancy was extremely painful and when she heard from others that her symptoms were abnormal she approached the prophet Shem to find out what’s going on. Shem notified her she was pregnant with twins and her extreme pain was because the two were constantly bickering inside of her.

Her twins represented two dynasties on opposite sides of the moral spectrum. One would be the standard bearer of monotheism and ethical consciousness while the other would aggressively seek world dominion leaving destruction and despair in its wake. They would constantly engage in a global tug of war for the soul of humanity and their battle begins now.

The knowledge she was carrying twins calmed Rivka despite the fact one was destined for bestiality, because so long as there is a defined separation between right and wrong, it is possible to ensure the right side wins.

Rivka’s pregnancy represents the inner reality of us all. There are times when we are shocked at the type of inner urges we are capable of experiencing and wonder if there is something inherently wrong with our morality. The Torah teaches us that there are two entities within us struggling to control our lives and we are tasked with empowering the good to overcome the evil. That the tamed and selfless moralist should overpower the self obsessed beast.

But rather than destroying our beast we must learn to channel its powerful energy to serve and enhance our ability to do the most good.

This is the task of an expert artist. To position the shadows of aggression and self obsession to serve the brightness and warmth of divinity, morality and selflessness to create the most stunning artwork of life.

You and I are the artists charged with developing our unique art.

Did you know you are a "shadchan?"

 

Many are enamored with the concept of a “shadchan,” the mythological matchmaker from Old World Europe who paired the young boys and girls in the shtetl for marriage. While most impressions of how matchmakers did their job are probably exaggerated, most traditional Jewish marriages until today are arranged by a shadchan who brings the two sides together.

In fact, today Shainy and I are celebrating ten years from our engagement, and we met through the arrangements of a shadchan.

The first time a shadchan was used in recorded history is in this week’s parsha. Avraham is seeing a wife for his son Yitzchak and instructs his servant Eliezer to travel to Charan to bring back the perfect girl from his extended family.

The entire mission was a miraculous adventure. His caravan of ten camels covered a distance of several weeks in several hours and while waiting at the well at the outskirts of town Eliezer made a deal with G-d: The first girl to offer him a sip of water would be the lucky catch.

The plan worked and when Rivka came out to the well he asked her for water and she went above and beyond, offering to draw water for the camels as well. When he inquired about her family and discovered she was Avraham’s great niece he was overcome with gratitude to G-d for bringing it all together.

She introduced him to her parents and now Eliezer was tasked with convincing them to agree to the match - the job description of a shadchan. He told them the details of his adventure and hearing how miraculous it was they understood that it was “bashert - meant to be” that Rivka marry Yitzchak.

Instead of writing “Eliezer told them the story of how he met Rivka” which the reader has just read, the Torah repeats the entire conversation with all the details that had just been related to us several verses earlier. Over fifty verses are dedicated to this seemingly unnecessary matchmaking story.

This is even more striking considering that tens of thousands of laws pertaining to the 613 mitzvot are merely alluded to in slight nuances, whereas the story of the first shadchan is repeated in all of its detail!

This match represents the story of Judaism. Rivka came from Charan (Hebrew for “anger), a heathen society steeped in promiscuity that it was the source of G-d’s anger at the world. Eliezer’s mission was to unite Rivka, who hailed from such a low moral background, to Yitzchak, the epitome of holiness and divinity.

This is what Judaism is all about. To elevate even the lowliest of realities and reveal the inherent divinity and goodness within it. The rest of the Torah tells us how to do it, but this matchmaker’s story teaches us that every one of us is a “shadchan” empowered to unite the entire world with G-d and pave the way for the era of Moshiach when goodness and kindness will prevail for all.

A Jew Can Always Learn New Tricks

 

I am told the older you get the harder it is to change.

But this week I witnessed someone close to seventy years old purchase a brand new pair of Tefillin and commit to wearing them daily (except Shabbos, of course) and a friend of mine just officiated at a Bris ceremony for a man who is older than seventy. This readiness to change and grow at every stage in life stems from the core of our identity.

The narrative of this week’s parsha opens three days after Avraham observed the mitzvah of Bris Milah (circumcision) at the age of ninety nine. He was in considerable pain, so G-d arranged for the weather to be extremely hot, deterring travelers from arriving at Avraham’s tent to avail themselves of his legendary hospitality. Avraham was distressed at this turn of events and sat at the entrance of his tent seeking guests to welcome into his home. As he sat there, he experienced a special revelation of G-d.

Over 150 years ago, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer, was celebrating his fifth birthday and he received a blessing from his grandfather, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek.

During their brief conversation, the young Sholom DovBer started sobbing. He learned in school that Avraham experienced a revelation from G-d. “Why does G-d not reveal himself to me?” cried the four year old to his grandfather.

“When a Jew who is ninety nine years old is willing to do a bris, he is worthy to experience divine revelation,” the Rebbe answered.

This brief conversation expresses the essential power of a Jew. Regardless of a Jew’s spiritual, religious or intellectual level he or she is always capable of desiring an intimate relationship with G-d. Even a small child can demand divine revelation and clarity.

And the way to get it is by always being ready to change and grow in Judaism. No matter how accomplished one may be, it is important to acknowledge there is room for growth and have the humility and boldness to make the change.

When Avraham was ninety nine years old he had achieved greater moral and spiritual heights than we ever will in ten lifetimes, yet he was ready to make the change.

My heroes are the brave men willing to start a new routine of wearing Tefillin every weekday and the brave women willing to kosher their kitchens and adopt new cooking habits. Those willing to set aside time every day to discover new vistas in Torah or take on the challenge of learning to read Hebrew. Undaunted by age and status, they are willing to adopt another mitzvah.

When we make our move, G-d reciprocates by giving us more clarity in life and an abundance of unimaginable blessing for ourselves and our families.

 

This Was Humanity’s Error That Avraham Fixed

Living Jewishly is vastly different than what conventional wisdom defines religiosity. The most common method used to measure one's religious devotion is participation in communal worship. Some think annual participation is sufficient to be considered religious while others contend one needs to be more consistent.

But Judaism is different. Open a Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), the eternal guidebook to Jewish living and you will find rules and regulations for every detail of life. The first words you utter upon waking, the order of getting dressed and how and when to eat breakfast is all delineated in the book about religiosity. Does G-d really care about the small details?

This week we learn of the adventures of Avraham, the first Jew. He merited the title because in a society dominated by idolatry, not only did he understand its inherent fallacy and discover the truth of G-d, he shared this clarity with anyone that would listen. He endured unbearable opposition and persecution as a result and it’s important to understand how society deteriorated to the point of worshipping molten images as deities in the first place.

In the beginning people merited direct communication with G-d. Everyone knew that G-d is the Creator, but they made one philosophical error. It is unbecoming for the great and omnipotent G-d to continuously be involved in the nitty gritty details of our universe. Once the cycle of nature was set in motion, G-d lost interest and moved on to bigger and better things. After all, keeping track of the many trillions of details in creation is tiring and no one appreciates a micromanager. 

This premise led to a series of philosophical errors which eventually evolved into the primitive and foolish culture of idol worship. 

Avraham challenged this original premise and explained that the notion that G-d got tired of creation or chose to delegate duties is an intellectual absurdity. As the creator constantly bringing reality into existence, G-d is surely present in every detail.

Avraham established an enormous hospitality apparatus at the crossroads of civilization, inviting all travelers to benefit from free room and board on the condition they acknowledge and thank G-d for it all. By educating people to find G-d in the mundane functions of eating, drinking and sleeping, he exposed the philosophical fallacy of idolatry, diminishing its influence on society with every progressive generation.

It follows that Avraham’s legacy of Judaism is all about revealing the divine in every detail of life, and the way to do so is spelled out in the Shulchan Aruch. Learning the abridged version is a good place to start.

When this fundamental premise pervades our psyche we can truly appreciate how every encounter is meaningful, nothing is dispensable and even challenges and failures can be purposeful. It all happens by focusing properly and Jewishly on the humdrum routine of life.

 

Hurricane Noach

Until half a century ago names became infamous only due to bad human behavior. But in 1953 we started giving names to hurricanes and tropical storms and for New Orleans peeps the name “Katrina” is a frightful memory and for Northeast Coasters the name “Sandy” can be traumatizing. Try saying “Harvey” to East Texans and see how it makes them feel...

Of course, there is no need for the Katrinas, Sandys and Harveys of the world to feel self conscious about this since these names are determined by a strict procedure established by the World Meteorological Organization. So there is no insinuation that someone named Katrina had anything to do with the destruction of New Orleans in 2005. But the historic flood that wiped all life off the face of the earth has been named for the man who was instrumental in ensuring that there would be survivors to rebuild the new world.

Every Shabbat, after we read the Torah portion during Synagogue services, we read a section from the Prophets containing a message similar to what we just read in the Torah scroll. This is called the Haftarah.

The section we read in connection with the story of Noach and the flood comes from Isaiah chapter 54 which discusses the redemption of the Jewish people after a long and arduous exile. G-d promises us that exile will never happen again, just as he promised Noach that life will never be destroyed from the earth again.

"For this is to Me [as] the waters of Noach, as I swore that the waters of Noach shall never again pass over the earth, so have I sworn neither to be wroth with you nor to rebuke you.”

Notice the prophet refers to the terrible flood as the “waters of Noach.” Why does Noach deserve to have his name associated with the waters that destroyed life, when he was actually the one to achieve the restoration of life after the disaster?

As I discussed last year, Noach failed to inspire his generation to repent. He spent over a century building his lifeboat without managing to persuade anyone outside of his immediate family to repent. As the face of morality of his time, he was expected to do more to avert the flood altogether. Since he chose not to lead, the flood is on his record.

But in Noach’s defense it is important to realize that humanity in his time was so earthly, coarse and egotistical that sensitivity to the divine was impossible. This is why G-d chose to restart civilization through the purifying energy of water.

The name “Waters of Noach” means “Waters of Serenity” as well. Just as water gathered properly for a Mikva can remove ritual impurity and make someone worthy to enter the Holy Temple, the waters of the great flood purified reality, paving the way for the revelation at Sinai and for Torah to serve as a light for all nations to attain the greatest moral, ethical and spiritual heights. Preparing our world for an era of peace and serenity with the coming of Moshiach.

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