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Rabbis' Blog

We're Pouring Concrete!

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It’s been some months since the bulldozers arrived at the construction site of the future Chabad Lubavitch Center for Jewish Life and today we reached the milestone of welcoming the cement trucks. Early this morning our dedicated construction team starting pouring cement for the concrete footings of the sanctuary, social hall and kitchen walls.

How appropriate that the foundation of our future Chabad House is completed this week, since the parsha of Pinchas contains a special lesson reflected in the now drying cement.

A question was once posed in the Study Hall of the Mishnaic sages: What is the most important verse in the entire Torah?

As could be expected, “Shema Yisrael” the foundation of Jewish faith was proposed as well as “Ve’ahavta Lereiacha Kamocha - Love your fellow as yourself” was an obvious candidate.

But then Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi proclaimed that the most important verse in the Torah is the one which communicates our obligation to offer two communal sacrifices every day in the Holy Temple, known in Hebrew as the Korban Tamid. “The first sheep shall be offered in the morning and the second sheep shall be offered in the evening.” (Numbers 28:4)

The assembled scholars and students were so taken by this proposition that they unanimously agreed the seemingly simple verse about the daily sacrifices surpasses the foundation of our faith and the cardinal rule of Jewish living in prominence.

Why?

There is only one mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew to fulfill every single day: The two daily sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple. Obviously this mitzvah is only practical at a time when there is a Holy Temple in Jerusalem and every Jew observed the mitzvah by proxy, through donating a half shekel every year to the Temple coffers. 

No other Mitzvah must happen every day; rain or shine, weekday, Shabbat and Holiday. It is the epitome of Jewish consistency - and that’s what Judaism depends on. Not every day does one succeed in fully relating with the deep philosophical meditation of “Shema Yisrael” nor manage to properly act upon the all encompassing brotherly love it leads to. But when Jewish action happens consistently, regardless of personal mood or current social trends, it provides the concrete foundation we need to keep Judaism alive forever.

A Chabad House is a place for every Jew, every day and every occasion. How apropos that its foundations were laid during the week that we learn of the most important verse in the Torah extolling consistency.

Please partner with us in building the future of Jewish life in El Paso and let’s commit ourselves to doing another mitzvah more consistently, cementing Judaism into every day of our lives.

Those Pathetic Anti-Semites

 

Have you ever followed a discussion between two antisemites? Or a Twitter thread filled with Jew hating dribble? If it weren't so dangerous it would be funny.

Those clowns engage in foolish banter, entertain ridiculous conspiracy theories and drone on and on about sheer lunacy.

But this phenomenon isn’t new. This week's parsha is dedicated to the adventures of two paranoid anti semites who tried to wipe out the entire Jewish nation three thousand years ago.

Here are their profiles.

Balak, the cowardly king of Moav hated the Jews with a blind passion. Even though the Israelites were expressly forbidden from occupying his land, their mere presence in the region drove him crazy.

Bilaam, the gentile prophet was a money hungry, egotistical hedonist. Notwithstanding his divine powers, he was unable to make the case for morality and justice within his circle of influence and resorted to being a divine mercenary for kings and warriors. For the right price he would curse your enemies - and his results were impressive every time. His antisemitism suited him quite well.

Balak knew that facing the Jews in battle was suicidal so he hired Bilaam to do the dirty work. He was delighted with the offer, but was keenly aware that cursing the Chosen Nation was futile. But he tried anyway - because he was an antisemite.

If Bilaam's power of the word were not so potent, the story would read like a comedy. Bilaam gets owned by his donkey, and the pair try the same stupidity thrice. But Bilaam was really dangerous and only G-d's specific intervention averted the worst.

Not only did Bilaam end up blessing the Jewish nation, he became the first to clearly articulate the coming of Moshiach in the future. The advent of an era when no nation will lift a sword against another nation, peace and tranquility will reign for all and G-dliness will be revealed throughout the world.

There is an important lesson here about the craziness we encounter ever increasingly in the world today. People are engaging in the most vile and illogical ideas, sometimes with tragic results. It makes you wonder where our world is headed.

But specifically from the most unbelievable darkness springs forth the greatest light. By responding to illogical hatred with illogical love, we access unlimited wellsprings of goodness.

I am not suggesting we ignore the hatred around us, but we must not let it drag us down. It is a sign of great goodness to come and we can prepare for it by doing more mitzvot and creating more goodness and kindness around us.

 

That's the Way It Is

 

It was during the High Holiday season of 2005 when I had a lengthy conversation with my grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, of blessed memory.

Since we lived thousands of miles apart and as a youngster I was not proficient in neither Hebrew or Yiddish, there was a significant communication barrier between us. But that afternoon in Brooklyn, when I was nineteen years old I asked him questions about the past. 

At age nineteen, orphaned from both parents, he was sentenced to twenty five years of harsh labor in Siberia for the treasonous crime of escaping the Soviet Union to live the openly Jewish lifestyle he craved.

“Witnesses can attest to the fact  that I never violated Shabbat, ate non-kosher meat or ate chametz (leaven) on Pesach,” he said.

This was not the norm. Jewish law stipulates that one must do anything to survive, aside for idolatry, murder or adultery, and every competent Rabbi would rule that my grandfather was obligated to eat whatever he had access to and to work on Shabbat rather than be in solitary confinement for five days each week. (This happened for two years straight!)

“Why did you risk your life to keep Shabbat and Kashrut under such impossible circumstances?” I asked him. “You weren’t obligated to do so.”

He smiled and after several minutes he shared with me a thought I am still trying to digest fourteen years later.

Twenty five years in Siberia was a veritable death sentence. He knew that he would never make it out alive. “Why should I violate Shabbat? Why should I eat non-kosher meat?”

Think about that. An orphaned teenager, condemned to a slow and painful death by a tyrannical government did not forget for a moment that G-d was with him even in the gulags and risked everything in order to connect with G-d through Shabbat and Kashrut.

The opening statement of this week’s parsha Chukat reads “This is the Chukah (statute) of the Torah.” Referring to the laws of ritual purity and impurity, the Torah clarifies that they transcend logic and must be accepted unquestioningly. That’s the way it is.

In a broader sense, this attitude of unquestioning acceptance is relevant in all areas of Jewish life, since the foundation of healthy Jewish living is unwavering loyalty to G-d and His commandments, because that’s the way it is.

Thankfully my grandfather’s sentence was commuted seven years later when Stalin died, and he went on to live a life rich with meaning and fulfillment. He was an inspiration to so many and he merited to have a large family across the globe who are the Rebbe’s emissaries for life. 

But for me it is most significant that his yartzeit (anniversary of passing) will be observed this Shabbat as we read parshat Chukat. He was the paragon of unwavering loyalty to G-d and ironclad commitment to living Jewishly at all costs, even when it made no sense, because that’s the way it is.

I hope to emulate his example more often.

 

The Rebbe Teaches Us Today

 

Everyone seeks positivity. Even the most bitter, self absorbed narcissist prefers smiling over scowling and complimenting over scolding. The trouble is learning how.

Lately I’ve been reading observations about the Rebbe by diverse personalities. As this Shabbat marks 25 years since the Rebbe’s passing on the third of Tammuz 1994, academics, journalists, rabbis and laymen in the global Jewish community feel compelled to pay tribute in various ways.

Most intriguing for me, though certainly not surprising, is the fact that many of them reflect on a personal connection they feel with the Rebbe, although most never met him in person.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks attributes every major decision of his adult life to the Rebbe; Yossi Klein Halevi carries around a dollar bill he received from the Rebbe through a friend; Liel Leibovitz has a photo of the Rebbe in her wallet. All three started viewing themselves and others differently after forging this connection.

Their diversity illustrates that every type of Jew can benefit from the Rebbe’s empowering teachings in a practical and personal way, with an emphasis on seeing the good in everything and everyone and identifying positive opportunity everywhere.

To the Rebbe this was not merely a slogan. For over forty years he educated all that would listen a deeply sophisticated intellectual Torah framework through which we can, not only believe in the potential good possessed by all but actually understand it and reveal it.

Here is an example of a radical twist in historical perception that I learned from the Rebbe in this week's parsha. 

Korach instigated a misguided revolt against Moshe, claiming that Aharon's appointment to priesthood was nepotism. While he is  condemned in almost every area of Torah scholarship, the Rebbe finds a redemptive angle to Korach - based on traditional Torah sources we have been studying for millennia.

His desire to be a Kohen and be privy to the immersive divine experience of the Temple service  is something we should all strive for. Certainly not in practice (because priesthood is exclusively a patriarchal inheritance) but being entirely focused on G-d is an attitude we can and should develop in our daily life.

Although this seeming revision of Korach is radical on the surface, in the paradigm of the Rebbe's Torah framework it is the most rational conclusion. Korach's actions are never justified, but an inner reading of his argument inspires us to become better. 

The Rebbe does not create motivational catch phrases or self help programs for life struggles. He shows us how to learn Torah, understand its eternal truth and view reality from its lenses.

Through studying the Rebbe's teachings and emulating his ways we become connected today, 25 years after his physical presence has left our world.

But learning is key.

As we observe the Rebbe's yartzeit, I encourage you to taste the beauty and depth of the Rebbe's wisdom readily available in the vast online knowledge base in over a dozen languages. Do it regularly.

This will prepare ourselves and the entire world for the era of Moshiach when the inherent good in everything will be revealed.

 

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