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Rabbis' Blog

My Proudest Chanukah Moment

 

Thursday morning, I had the opportunity to join Dee Woo on KTEP/NPR live radio for the third year in a row for a discussion about Chanukah. During those 55 minutes we spoke about various Chanukah themes and ideas and touched upon the beautiful ARK project encouraging charitable giving among El Paso school children.

After playing a short Chanukah song performed by the Tzlil V’zemer children’s choir, Dee asked me a question I never expected.

“What about Jews living in remote areas who do not have the opportunity to participate in synagogue services regularly and feel isolated from the broader Jewish community? How do you reach out to them and bring them into the festivities of Chanukah?”

I was struck by the poignancy of the question since, although millions of Jews are celebrating Chanukah throughout the world in one way or another, there are millions more who are completely uninvolved with the holiday and may not even know what Chanukah is all about. Not only in remote areas, but in the heart of communities such as Brooklyn and Los Angeles, surrounded by the most impressive displays of Jewish pride and observance, there are so many Jews who are unfortunately completely tuned out.

“That’s why I’m having this discussion on live radio,” I answered. Mainstream media seems to be the best way to broadcast the Chanukah message in a way that is accessible even to those unable to participate in communal celebrations thereby including them in the Chanukah festivities.

Leaving the studio I was dissatisfied with my answer. Is that all I have to offer to a Jew in a remote town without a Chanukah celebration to participate in? I decided to do something about it.

During the spring I had met Jack (a pseudonym) from a small town in Pennsylvania. An unfortunate family tragedy brought him to El Paso for several days and we connected during his stay. He wrapped Tefillin for the first time at Chabad and over the last eight months we’ve been in touch sporadically.

I called him on Thursday afternoon, wished him a happy Chanukah and asked him how he’s doing.

“Glad to be in the final week of a really bad year, rabbi.”

“Jack, you had a tough year. Let’s make the final week a brighter one by doing a special mitzvah.”

“I’m listening.”

Turns out he has several menorahs at home but hasn’t lit them in many years. He immediately made a detour to a local store to buy candles and called me back when he had five candles set up in one of his menorahs. I recited the blessings together with him and after lighting his five candles he sent me a photo of perhaps the only brilliant menorah in his small town in Pennsylvania. It was my proudest Chanukah moment of 2019.

You can have such a moment as well. Think of a Jewish friend or acquaintance who can use some friendly encouragement to join the Chanukah train and nudge them to light a menorah. We have three nights left to share the inspiration and joy of Chanukah, and you can make this Chanukah your proudest one yet.

Penn_Menorah.jpg

 

 

 

Control Your Environment

 

A friend of mine shared this idea a few days ago: Ensure you live life as a thermostat, not a thermometer. I thought it was brilliant and found a connection to this week’s parsha as well.

The genesis of our nationhood is attributed to our three forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The third, Yaakov is especially relevant to us as evidenced in the fact that our national name is Bnei Yisrael (Yisrael is the name G-d gave to Yaakov later in life) and our national homeland is called Eretz Yisrael.

The fact that Yaakov’s twelve sons fathered twelve distinct tribes indicates that each one of them set the tone for their respective descendants, while the lives of the three forefathers set the tone for all Jews equally.

Yosef is an exception. Although he is one of the tribes and was not the grandfather of a Jew descended from Reuven, every Jew is connected to Yosef. The historical reason is because Yosef saved the entire family of Yaakov from perishing during the severe famine we learn about next week in parshat Miketz, but he lived his life as a thermostat and this is a lesson we all need to learn equally.

In this week’s parsha we learn how Yosef experienced perhaps the worst trauma one can ever endure; being sold into slavery by his own brothers. To make matters worse, he was eventually sold to an Egyptian of exceptional moral depravity and, after being accused of a crime he never committed, was thrown into prison as a common criminal.

Throughout this drawn out ordeal he never lost his faith and was an inspiration to everyone around him. While serving as administrator of his master’s estate everyone knew he was a believer, because of his impeccable behavior and his constant talk of G-d. After enduring the defamation of a nasty libel and wrongful conviction he remained a source of cheer and optimism to his fellow prisoners.

While hindsight is 20/20, there was no way of knowing at the time that he would eventually be installed as viceroy of Egypt, save humanity from famine and be reunited with his family. For thirteen long years Yosef’s life was a tale of abject misery and he could have easily throw in the towel, assimilated to the Egyptian way of life and climbed the ladder to success by acquising to his master’s immoral demands. Noone would know or care anyway.

Instead Yosef became a shining example of devotion to doing what is right because G-d is everywhere and cares about what we do. When we tenaciously overcome the hurdles placed in our way and are a source of inspiration to others even when things are bleak, we are then granted the opportunity to inspire and impact the entire world in comfort and with dignity.

 

On Being Ruthless

 

Words are marvelous contraptions that can have opposite meanings depending on their context. For example, the word “ruthless” is defined in the dictionary as “having or showing no pity or compassion for others.” This adjective is typically used to describe evile people.

But I have a friend who uses the word “ruthless” to describe anyone he greatly admires for their zealousness and passion for their work or ideas. When he says “this guy is ruthless” I know he means “this guy is my example for how to do this activity.” So it’s all about context.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the meeting between Yaakov and Eisav. What should have been a reunion between twin brothers who had not seen each other for twenty years was a tension filled standoff, since Eisav was marching towards Yaakov’s family with four hundred men eager to kill.

Yaakov averted the danger and Eisav returned home without inflicting any damage but the standoff was the beginning of a long and arduous struggle for the soul of humanity. Yaakov and his offspring, chosen to be G-d’s ambassadors to the world to share the wisdom of Torah are forever challenged by the Eisavs of every generation who aggressively seek world dominion leaving destruction and despair in their wake.

The prophet Ovadia was a descendant of Eisav who converted to Judaism and transmitted the prophecy predicting the ultimate victory of Yaakov’s monotheism and morality over Eisav’s egocentric aggressiveness. “And the house of Yaakov shall be fire and the house of Yoseph a flame, and the house of Eisav shall become stubble, and they shall ignite them and consume them, and the house of Eisav shall have no survivors, for the L-rd has spoken.”

If G-d wants to express that one day Eisav will be reduced to nothing, it would have been more appropriate to compare Eisav to ashes than to stubble and straw which have value. When the enslaved Israelites were forced to build cities for their Egyptian masters, stubble was the material with which they produced building bricks. Why is Eisav compared to such a valuable commodity?

Because the objective here is not to rid the world of Eisav, rather to destroy the evil he represents and harness his ferocious powers for good. The “fire of Yaakov and flame of Yoseph” will eventually burn out the self centeredness and evil within everything in this world and reveal the positive contribution even “ruthlessness” can have in making a more perfect and peaceful world when put in the proper context.

This week we experienced a horrifying anti-semitic attack in Jersey City. Heartbroken and outraged at this seemingly never ending madness we must do all we can to stop this chaos. Let us be mindful that instead of investing all our energy into expressing justified rage, we should seek ways to reach every segment of society and share the beauty of Torah to cultivate the inherent goodness every human being possesses.

Don’t underestimate the willingness of every person to do another mitzvah. Opportunities abound and we need to seize them properly.

Immunization Against Assimilation

 

Elevating the quality of life is the driving force of the economy and the motivation behind human innovation since the beginning of time. We invented the wheel, the train and the space shuttle and so many modes of instant communication and we all know this is only the beginning.

While life is becoming more convenient we must ask ourselves how we protect and elevate the quality of our morals, values and Jewish identity in a fast changing world filled with so many ideologically hostile cultures?

In this week’s parsha we learn of Yaakov’s escape from his brother Eisav’s vengeful wrath. Leaving Be’er Sheva, the capital city of monotheism, morality and ethics at the time, he journeyed to Charan, a community steeped in thievery and deceit and spent twenty years there waiting for his brother’s anger to subside.

Although he was a destitute refugee when he arrived there, Yaakov managed to start a family and accumulate a massive fortune by the time he returned home to Be’er Sheva, all while remaining true to his values throughout. How did he do it?

The Torah relates that on his way to Charan Yaakov spent the night on the spot that would later become Holy Temple. Before going to sleep he arranged some stones around his head as a protection from wild beasts.

If the stones were meant to protect him from beasts, would it not have been prudent to arrange them around his entire body? Besides, what could be the relevant lesson for us today and now, at a time where we have much better modes of self protection, from the way Yaakov protected himself while sleeping outdoors thousands of years ago?

Placing stones only around his head was symbolic of Yaakov’s acute understanding of the challenges that lay ahead. He realized that he was leaving the environment of holiness and purity and entering a world of moral chaos and confusion and his mind needed protection from the moral and ethical challenges he would now endure.

So he surrounded his head with stones which are lifeless and cold, representing the ironclad commitment to doing the right things even if you are uninspired and not in the mood. To protect your values you need to be committed to sticking to them even when you have no interest.

Being intellectually and emotionally invested in Judaism is crucial but the secret to our success is through doing what needs to be done even if our hearts and minds are not invested. Don’t wait to love the mitzvah you can do right now. Do it anyway and your lifeless meaningless action will provide the strongest foundation you need to remain a committed Jew through thick and thin.

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