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Rabbis' Blog

How Our Mood Changed Two Hundred Years Ago

 

Historically, these next four weeks were a tense and frightening time in Jewish tradition.

Gearing up for Rosh Hashanah - the day of judgement - the Jewish calendar features the month called Elul, designated as the time for self introspection and correction. We still have a chance to wipe the slate clean by identifying our faults and repenting for past improprieties. Sounds frightening and intense.

A little over two centuries ago the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad radically changed our perception of Elul and transformed it into a time of passionate joy. Here is what he explained.

Jewish mysticism teaches that Shabbat is different than the rest of the week because there is a great revelation of divine clarity in our world from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Therefore, we must unplug from our mundane reality and focus on our relationship with G-d in a formal way. We are prohibited from certain labors and spend the day steeped in spirituality.

The same is true about the festivals and since Yom Kippur is the apex of divine revelation in our world, it is considered the most solemn of days when we must disconnect even from our most basic physical needs throughout the day.

These same sources of Jewish mysticism teach that the divine energy manifest in the world on Yom Kippur is also present throughout the entire month of Elul. This begs the obvious question - why do we not behave as we do on Yom Kippur throughout the entire month of Elul?

Kings and Queens are mostly a relic of the past, but to this day much of humanity is fascinated by royalty and royal life, so let’s employ the analogy of a king and his subjects.

When the king is in his palace he is virtually unapproachable. Even the select few granted an audience must follow royal protocols and dress codes, have limited time and the experience is largely choreographed. Even if their wishes are granted with much pomp and ceremony the encounter is highly formal, certainly memorable but rarely pleasurable.

At times the king wishes to fraternize with his subjects in the fields. He wears plainclothes, available to all and, most importantly, he is in a splendid and happy mood, putting everyone at ease. Although extremely informal, he is still the king and grants his subjects all of their wishes, sans the pomp and ceremony.

With this in mind, the Alter Rebbe explains that on Yom Kippur G-d is in “the palace.” We are expected to follow a strict protocol and meet G-d in the synagogue in a state of detachment from materialism.

But during Elul G-d is in “the fields.” Accessible by everyone, even while steeped in materialism and the humdrum of daily life. All we need to do is make the effort to approach G-d by learning more Torah and observing another mitzvah, and He will surely grant us a good and sweet new year. There is still intense work to be done, but it’s no longer foreign and formal.

Sounds like a happy time to me.

The Many Colors of Devotion

 

I had seen photos of it and heard the story of devotion, sacrifice and bravery behind it, but had never seen it.

Last month I visited the exhibition of the Lubavitch Library in Brooklyn, home to hundreds of thousands of rare books, manuscripts and artifacts belonging to the glorious dynasties of Chassidic Rebbes dating back to the Baal Shem Tov.

The display that caught my attention most was a book of Zohar that had belonged to the Rebbe’s father, Rav Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, the legendary chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. This is no ordinary Zohar, since the margins of its pages are filled with his novel interpretations and explanations of the ancient text, in tiny handwriting of red, blue, green and black.

Rav Levi Yitzchok served as the spiritual leader of Russian Jewry long after all other rabbis had either been exiled or murdered by the Communist regime. After the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was banished from the Soviet Union in 1927, Rav Levi Yitzchok was the only remaining rabbi of stature to openly fight against the Communist anti-Jewish oppression, ensuring that Jewish observance and education continue to thrive behind the Iron Curtain.

Days before Pesach 1939 he was arrested on false accusations of high treason and sentenced to five years in the remote region of Chi’ili, Kazakhstan - far removed from any semblance of Jewish life or community. For a scholar and leader of his caliber, the isolation from fellow Jews was certainly the most acute and painful aspect of the harrowing experience.

His wife, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson voluntarily joined him and the most important things she brought from home were several Torah books for him to study. Seeing his delight and pleasure with these treasures she understood that he wished to write down the many novel ideas he developed while studying as he was accustomed to doing back home.

She learned to produce ink from wild berries and Rav Levi Yitzchok diligently wrote until the margins of all the books were filled with his brilliance - in short hand and in multiple colors - published decades later in a five-volume set as his eternal legacy.

He never returned home from exile and a few months after his release, Rav Levi Yitzchok passed away in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan on the 20th day of Av and was buried in a tiny Jewish section of a large cemetery - emblematic of the ultimate spiritual and physical sacrifice he endured for Judaism.

When I saw the pages of the Zohar filled with his colorful writing on display at the exhibition, it dawned on me how this illustrates the ultimate Jewish strength. Even while enduring unbearable suffering and pain, one can continue to be a shining light of devotion, wisdom and leadership for generations to come.

This Wednesday will be the 75th Yahrzeit of Rav Levi Yitzchok. I encourage you to learn more about him, his teachings and his legacy and to be inspired by his message of unwavering faith and devotion under all circumstances.

A Stranger Helped Me Today

 

My car broke down next to the Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall earlier today because it was out of fuel. I hopped out of the car and approached a perfect stranger walking away from the memorial and asked him if he could give me a lift to the nearest gas station. He gladly agreed.

Andrew is a journalist from out of town writing a story on how educators will speak to their students about the unspeakable tragedy from last Shabbat, as school begins on Monday.

We swapped a few thoughts on the matter and I commented to him that the killer travelled all the way across Texas just to kill people because he was motivated by senseless hatred. We need to respond by doing acts of senseless love and compassion, and this short ride to the gas station for a perfect stranger was a great example of that.

It’s the perfect tradeoff - blunt hate with love. Destroy senseless hate with senseless love.

This Shabbat is Tisha B’Av - the national Jewish day of tragedy and mourning, typically observed through a 25 hour fast, but this year is different. Since the ninth day of Av occurs on Shabbat, and Shabbat is a day of pleasure and rejoicing, the sadness and pain of the observance will be delayed to Saturday night and Sunday.

Although the commemoration of the destruction of both our Holy Temples and other tragedies is delayed - the positive elements and messages of Tisha B’Av are magnified specifically when it occurs on Shabbat.

According to tradition the second Holy Temple was destroyed as a result of rampant hatred and the political bickering that rocked the Jewish nation at the time. People despised others for no explainable reason. Although Torah scholarship flourished at the time and there was no issue with idolatry and the like, the atmosphere was so toxic and tensions ran so high that G-d deemed it unworthy for the Holy Temple to remain in our midst.

That’s why Titus and the Roman legions were successful in capturing Jerusalem, destroying our Holy Temple and banishing us into exile.

But G-d promised we will return as soon as we fix the problems, and the way to correct senseless hatred is by engaging in senseless love.

As we observe Tisha B’Av and especially in light of El Paso’s shocking tragedy this week, let us focus our energies in reaching out to others, offering a helping hand and a kind word. Increase in Tzedakah giving, especially in the frequency of your giving. Set aside a Tzedakah box at home and at the office and make charity a permanent and consistent aspect of life.

May our combined efforts usher in the era we are all so desperately waiting for, when peace and tranquility will fill the world with the coming of Moshiach, even before we observe the fast this Sunday.

Being Free

 

Often we get frustrated when presented with new challenges. 

“What did I do wrong? Why do I deserve this problem?”

Instead of investing all our energy in finding a solution to the problem, it is often more tempting to engage in self pity and rage at the fact that the day is not going as initially planned.

The second parsha we will read this week, Parshat Masei, opens with a complete itinerary of the forty-year Israelite journey through the desert, from Egypt to the outskirts of the Promised Land.

“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel as they departed from Egypt.” (Numbers 33:1)

On Passover the Israelites did not embark on a direct flight to Israel. There were many stops and delays on the way until they finally made it to Israel.

Why then does the Torah preface the itinerary by referring to all the journeys as departures from Egypt? Since they departed from Egypt only once it would have been more accurate to call them “journeys to the Land of Israel.”

The Hebrew name for Egypt is “Mitzrayim” and appreciating the root meaing of this word provides the answer to our question.

“Mitzrayim” means boundaries and limitations. On Passover we did not only leave a geographical location called “Mitzrayim,” we were empowered to break through any type of limitation we may ever encounter in our lives. Our ancestors did not reach the Promised Land on the first trip to teach us that life is a constant reality of breaking through limitations. Every juncture in life presents an opportunity to prove our freedom and every day we are presented with new challenges to overcome, to act upon our freedom once again.

Although the goal was to reach the Promised Land - a reality where divinity was apparent and revealed in its full glory - the real story to tell was how we got there. Because every journey was another Exodus.

During the terrifying years of Communist persecution the Previous Rebbe once said: “Fellow Jews! Take advantage of the opportunity to sacrifice for Judaism. One day you will be free to practice Judaism without trouble and you will pine for the days when Judaism came with a price.”

We must not place ourselves in challenging situations, but when the challenge presents itself, realize its potential to make you truly free.

 

 

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