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Rabbis' Blog

Get to Know Yourself

 

Regret is painful. Sometimes it’s about small issues and sometimes it’s about major catastrophes. I once heard a mentor explain that when someone wonders “how could I have done that that?” the honest response is to “get to know yourself.”

This is not an indictment of humanity, rather an embrace of our inherent imperfection and our ability to fix what we broke.

Approaching Passover it is customary to read two Torah portions during Shabbat synagogue services in addition to the standard weekly Torah portion. This week, after reading Parshat Shemini we will read a portion from the Book of Numbers about the laws of the Red Heifer (Parshat Parah) and next week, after reading Parshat Tazria, we will read a portion from the Book of Exodus about the Jewish calendar and the first Paschal Lamb (Parshat Hachodesh).

The purpose for these extra readings during the Holy Temple era was to remind the nation that Passover was approaching and the Paschal Lamb - the most important element of the Seder at the time - needed to be prepared accordingly. Since the Paschal Lamb was only offered in the Holy Temple, and one must be ritually pure before entering, we read about the Red Heifer - the centerpiece of the ritual purification process - a week beforehand.

Why was the reading of ritual purification standardized for the entire nation? Was it assumed that most Jews were ritually impure in the lead up to Passover?

Although the specific need for purification varied, the availability of the Red Heifer ashes for the purification process is considered a Jewish national treasure. Why? Because everyone is susceptible to ritual impurity and everyone must know that - there is a way to correct the problem and then participate in the celebration of our redemption on Passover.

Today, in the absence of the Holy Temple, when ritual purity through the Red Heifer and the offering of the Paschal Lamb is not physically possible, we continue this annual pre Passover tradition, and the joint message of these two readings highlights the key to self perfection and global redemption.

Metaphorically speaking, ritual impurity can be compared to sin and the ritual purification process can be compared to repentance. It is possible for a human being to live a sinless life and never need to do Teshuva (repentance), just as someone can live a life of ritual purity and never need the ritual purification process of the Red Heifer. Nevertheless, Teshuvah is a gift for everyone.

Imperfection is not a liability - it is the first step to perfection. The imperfect are empowered to perfect a profoundly imperfect world and usher in an era of global redemption for us all.

Everyone can do it.

 

And they lived happily ever after...

In many Jewish communities Purim jesters visit homes to enliven the festivities and collect money for worthy causes. They sing a famous Yiddish song-song that roughly translates to this: “Today is Purim, tomorrow no more. Give me a dollar and throw me out the door.”

Today is the day after Purim. Is Purim truly no more?

For the last two weeks we’ve been studying the Megillah at our Tuesday night classes and many were surprised to discover that the miracle of Purim was an episode that extended for close to a year. Often storytellers make it seem as if once Haman was killed the Jews lived happily ever after...

That's not what happened.

Haman cast his lots two days before Passover and scheduled the Final Solution for eleven months down the line. Mordechai and Esther swiftly sprung to action and within three days Haman was hanging from the gallows, but his murderous decree was still very much alive. Since it was signed with the king's signet ring, so long Achashveirosh remained in power the Jews still faced a terrifying end.

Even after Esther begged and pleaded that he rescind the decree, the mighty king demurred claiming it was against “the process.” Once a decree was stamped with the royal signet ring it was unchangeable. For two months Mordechai and Esther petitioned incessantly, until Achashveirosh agreed to issue a counter decree that the Jews should defend themselves on the day they were condemned to death. By no means had the danger passed until they were victorious the next year.

The decree had an interesting loophole. It only targeted “Yehudim” which referred specifically to Jews who refused to become heathens. A Jew that would forsake his or her faith in G-d would be spared death. Nevertheless, not one Jew used the loophole.

It was the first time that the entire Jewish nation faced such a test of faith and they passed it with flying colors.  For a full year, every single Jew clung to the Jewish faith under penalty of death.

It emerges that the miracle of Purim did not only unfold in the halls of power. It was manifest in the behavior of every Jewish man, woman and child for the duration of an entire year. Their deepest connection to G-d was on full display every single day.

More than any other holiday, Purim teaches us that Torah and Mitzvot are not exclusive to special times and places. Judaism is not only relevant on Shabbat and Festivals, in the synagogue, around the seder table or next to the menorah. We are Jews every moment of the day, wherever we are.

Turns out that every day is Purim.

 

Treating Chutzpah with Chutzpah

We have all experienced it and are probably guilty of it to some extent. “Chutzpah” is so ingrained in our social fabric that dictionary.com explains to the uninitiated it can be used to describe audacity, nerve, impudence and gall. I believe the original Hebrew term was so widely adopted, because “chutzpah” really refers to something much deeper and more sinister than simple brazenness.

As this is the Shabbat before Purim, during synagogue services we will read a short portion titled Parshat Zachor form the Torah after reading the weekly Torah portion. These three verses toward the end of Deuteronomy describe the mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew to remember and never forget what the nation of Amalek did to us shortly after the exodus from Egypt.

Literally weeks after the Israelites were liberated from Egyptian slavery, the Amalekites journeyed hundreds of miles from their homeland to wage war with them in the wilderness. The attack was unprovoked and completely unjustified as the Israelites were not poised to inherit their land and posed no threat to them at all. Besides, the Amalekites were well aware that they would lose, so why did they do it?

Our sages compare the Amalekite tactic to the scenario of a boiling hot tub that everyone was afraid to dip into until one nut-job jumped in. Even though he got severely burned, the water was no longer that intimidating to everyone else.

The Exodus from Egypt and the Splitting of the Sea were such monumental events that all the nations cowered in fear and the Israelite morale was at an all-time high. The miraculous display of divine power ensured that no one would dare oppose them as they advanced to Sinai to receive the Torah and then on to Israel to inherit their promised homeland. It also ensured that there would be no internal resistance to the spiritual journey they were experiencing.

The Amalekites sought to disrupt this global perception and to destroy the Israelite morale by launching their suicide attack, and they were wildly successful. This is the epitome of “Chutzpah:” disrupting something positive for no reason at all.

Today the Amalekite nation does not exist, nevertheless we are still obligated to remember them because there is an Amalek inside each one of us. For example, at times one may experience clear divine providence and feel inspired to express thanks to G-d by doing an extra mitzvah or giving extra charity until an internal voice says “Meh, chill out. It was just a coincidence.”

How to respond to such internal chutzpah? With positive chutzpah. Do an extra mitzvah - for no reason at all. Learn some more Torah even if your schedule is overwhelming - just because. Increase your tzedakak giving even if the bank has not been growing lately - simply out of chutzpah.

 

It’s the only language Amalek understands.

 

Warm Dinner on the Road

Earlier this week a friend of mine connected me with a student of his who was moving from the east coast to San Diego, driving through El Paso on Monday evening. Yaakov was interested in learning some Torah with a Rabbi during his trip and my friend suggested he stop in El Paso for a quick Torah class.

We communicated throughout the day and soon realized that he would get here late at night so I suggested he stop for some dinner at our home and continue on his way. Dinner was delicious, the conversation refreshing (we spoke plenty of Torah subjects) and Yaakov left with two cupcakes and some recommendations of online lectures for the rest of the drive.

It’s common for road trippers to find entertainment along the route and I was impressed that Yaakov chose to seek out a Torah class, in addition to the online classes he was listening to during the drive because he wanted the trip to be a Jewish experience: To stop in a town and learn Torah with a real person.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, which served as a divine dwelling space within the Israelite camp for close to forty years. The final verse describes the divine cloud that hovered over the edifice signaling G-d’s presence.

“For the cloud of G-d was above the Tabernacle by day, and fire would be there by night, visible to the entire House of Israel, at all their journeys.”

The Tabernacle was only erect when the Israelites were encamped. Why then does the Torah use the word “journeys” when referring to their encampments?

Because for a Jew the journey from Point A to Point B is as important and consequential as the point of departure and destination. At every step of the way there are ample opportunities to serve G-d. Whether it is joining a prayer service on the road, learning Torah with a Jew or inspiring a fellow traveler to do more goodness and kindness there is always a chance to make a real impact.

This is the final message of the entire book of Shemot and when we will read this verse in the Synagogue during Shabbat services it is customary for the congregation to announce in unison “Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazek! - Be strong! Be strong! May we be strengthened!”

It is an empowering message yet one that demands much moral strength to apply on a constant basis - but the reward is limitless.

Who knows? Maybe the next time you seek out a mitzvah on the road you will end up with a delicious, warm dinner as a bonus. :)

 

 

Hard Hats Only

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I never thought setting up a fence could be an emotional event, but this Monday was special. A crew of workers set up a fence around the front area of the Chabad property on Escondido and the landscape of Jewish El Paso has changed forever.

The idea of a brand new Chabad Lubavitch Center for Jewish Life has been brewing for many years and the community is abuzz about the campaign for quite some time already, but the simple act of surrounding the construction site was a game changer. We’ve moved forward from the planning stages.

I confess that although I am intimately familiar with the demolition plans, I get excited with every carpet ripped out, every piece of plywood taken down and every shingle knocked off the roof.

The information we read in this week’s parsha Vayakhel is extremely familiar. The construction plans of the mishkan (tabernacle) delineated in the Torah over the past three weeks is repeated almost verbatim, to the point that Rashi, the epic commentator has very little to comment on since all the information was previously explained.

Why the detailed repetition? Beforehand the mishkan was a plan and now the Israelites are making it a reality. Every step of the actual construction is exciting and worthy of mention.

Construction sites are busy places. Many people with diverse abilities and credentials participate in the daily goings-on. But there is one thing that unites everyone on site - the hard hat. Beyond the practical safety concern, I believe the fact everyone is wearing the same hat illustrates a vital dynamic necessary to ultimate success; they are all united for one purpose. Everyone has a specific role, but they are members of the same team.

The name of this week’s parsha “Vayakhel” means to gather and unite. Before Moshe shared the divine plans and delegated responsibilities he gathered everyone together to illustrate how this important goal of creating a divine dwelling within the camp is achieved. First and foremost the Israelites must appreciate and digest the fact that they are a single unit. Not a coalition of diverse tribes and factions, but a community bound together at the core.

This same idea is reflected in the broader mission we have as a nation. We are empowered to reveal G-d in every detail of reality through learning Torah and observing Mitzvot. But to succeed we must appreciate that we are part of a large team and everyone in the team needs to be actively engaged.

So when picking up the tools needed to observe a specific mitzvah, remember to put on your “hard hat.” Be sure to share it with another - because every Jew is wearing a hard hat on the grand construction site of making our world a dwelling place for G-d.

 

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