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Rabbis' Blog

How can I respect a lowlife?

 

Unity is a fundamental concept in Jewish teachings and culture but can be difficult to observe. When the Torah commands us “V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha - Love your fellow as yourself,” paying lip service to Jewish brotherhood is insufficient. We are expected to truly love and respect each other as we do ourselves. Everyone.

To honestly live up to this divine expectation, our sages provided us with a fascinating lesson in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers): Judge every person to the side of merit.

On the surface this seems to be the same idea as the famous adage “Don't judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” Since everyone lives unique lives, with respective circumstances and challenges, one should therefore never judge another for their poor choices and presume guilt.

But Pirkei Avot says something different. Not only must you not conclude that this person’s poor choices and bad deeds were done out of malice and assume the moral high ground - you should judge this pathetic human being “to the side of merit.” Simply put, realize that his or her bad behavior reflects on something meritorious about them!

What is that supposed to mean?

Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of Adam, the first human being, who upon becoming conscious of reality immediately crowned G-d as King of the Universe. But on that same day he violated the one and only commandment he had from G-d, not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and brought death and destruction to G-d’s perfect world.

How is it possible that Adam, crafted by “G-d’s hands,” did not have the basic self discipline to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit for a few hours? He had so many other delights to indulge in, was he really that desperate?

The Talmud declares “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination (for evil) is also greater.”

Adam’s temptation to sin was so powerful specifically because he possessed such a lofty soul capable of overcoming the challenge. Unfortunately he failed and we feel the impact until today, but the lesson for us is to realize that if someone is capable of stooping so low to commit sins unimaginable to us, it is because their potential is infinitely greater than our own.

Immoral and sinful behavior is never justified, nor should we tolerate it. We must learn to reject bad behavior while appreciating and embracing the great potential of the perpetrator. When we view every person based on their potential, their bad behavior should motivate us to work even harder to help them realize their great potential - which may very well yield results greater than our own.

As we approach the new year, let’s make an effort to reach out to someone who fits the above description and find ways to enable him or her to realize their fullest potential.

 

Don’t give us what we deserve

 

One of the great frustrations with our justice system is the painfully long time one must wait to have their case heard in front of a judge or jury. The upside is that the lawyers have plenty of time to prepare the right defense strategy.

In preparation for the Day of Judgement - Rosh Hashanah we have an entire month of Elul to prepare ourselves by increasing our Torah learning and Mitzvah observance, blowing the shofar every day to put us in the proper mindset.

This Saturday night at midnight our preparations go into high gear as we begin reciting the Selichot prayers every day until Rosh Hashanah. In addition to fixing the past and making good resolutions for the future now is the time to strategize how we will approach G-d on Rosh Hashanah and elicit a positive verdict for a good and sweet new year.

The liturgy of Selichot begins with this verse from the prophet Daniel: “To You, O L-rd, is Tzedakah (the righteousness), and to us is the shamefacedness.”

This opening statement sets the tone for our judgement day defense strategy. We are not asking G-d to consider all of the good things we did this past year, especially in the month of Elul, or to take into account our resolutions for the coming year. We want G-d to give us everything as a Tzedakah, as charity.

The only thing that comes for free is Tzedakah. Even a gift only happens when the giver has benefitted in some way from the receiver. But Tzedakah is selfless. The benefactor and the beneficiary may have no prior relationship and still the benefactor gives Tzedakah for no reason connected to the beneficiary.

Selichot reminds us that although it is important to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah, we must always maintain a humble attitude and not expect G-d reward us for our actions. We want Him to provide us our needs this coming year in a way of Tzedakah.

Although this perspective may sound timid and depressing it is in fact the most empowering and encouraging message for us all. Regardless of what we deserve we are aiming for bigger and better. When G-d provides us based on our merits there is certainly a limit. But when G-d provides us based on His ability to give Tzedakah - the possibilities are limitless.

This Tzedakah strategy has ramifications for our approach to serving G-d as well. Just as we want G-d to disregard process and give us beyond all limits, we too should disregard process and commit to increase our Torah learning and Mitzvah observance even when it seems difficult and uncomfortable.

Let’s make our two way divine relationship boundless and limitless as only Tzedakah can be.

 

 

The Dispute that produced a Brilliant Name

Ever felt like a prophet? According to Jewish mysticism, a person’s name is their personal channel for divine energy, so when parents name their child they are having a mini prophecy. Although it is certainly a spiritual experience, not every naming goes over smoothly.

Hundreds of years ago a couple was blessed with a son and the parents were at odds about what to name him. The father wished to name his son for his father “Uri” and the mother wanted to name him for her father “Meir.” Apparently giving two names was not common practice then and finding themselves at an impasse they approached the local rabbi who recommended an ingenious solution.

The name “Uri” means “my light” and the name “Meir” means “to illuminate.” Since both names mean light, he suggested they name their newborn son “Shnei Ohr - Two Lights.” Thus the name Schneur came to be.

321 years ago, on the 18th day of Elul, the Baal Shem Tov hosted a joyous meal in honor of his 47th birthday. Although he was accustomed to celebrating his birthday every year, the devoted disciples perceived something extraordinary about that year’s celebration.

 

The Baal Shem Tov said then that a child was born who will ultimately illuminate the entire world with the brilliance of the revealed Torah (scripture, talmud and Jewish law) and the esoteric Torah (Jewish philosophy and mysticism). This child was the famed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, known as the Alter Rebbe.

The name Schneur - which means “two lights” - expresses the Alter Rebbe’s eternal legacy. He authored a Shulchan Aruch - Code of Jewish Law - bringing pristine clarity to all areas of Jewish law and talmudic exegesis as well as his groundbreaking seminal work of Tanya which brilliantly articulates the deepest secrets of the Torah so that everyone with a mind can understand and apply them.

The difference between these two lights of the Torah can be understood from the original dispute over the names Uri and Meir that produced the name Schneur. 

“Uri” connotes the idea that the light remains separate from others. The revealed Torah - scripture, talmud and Jewish law - provides light and clarity for us in life, but it is possible to remain separate from it. A Jew can view Torah an enhancement and guide for life, but life and Torah remain mutually exclusive.

“Meir” connotes the idea that the light shine brightly for others to the point that we can own it as well. The esoteric element of Torah -  Jewish philosophy, mysticism and Chassidus - allows us to appreciate how we are part of G-d’s masterplan for creation and we can and must be entirely invested in Torah, since it is our very life.

The Alter Rebbe’s life work brings both elements of Torah together. Every level of Torah can studied genuinely and passionately until you own it and always make sure to share it with others.

As we celebrate the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe on the 18th of Elul (this Wednesday) I invite you to learn more chassidus and brighten up our world in ways you may have never deemed possible.

 

 

Become a Kohen Often

A man approached the rabbi with a deal. “I'll give you $10,000 and you make me a Kohen.”

The rabbi rejected. “I’m sorry, sir. But I do not have the power to do so.”

“I'll give you $25,000… $50,000… rabbi, please! The price is not important. I must become a Kohen!”

“Why are you so desperate to be a Kohen?”

“My father was a Kohen and his father was a Kohen...”

It’s a funny joke because we all know that being a Kohen is not a promotion one can achieve through paying any money in the world or by being the most pious Jew of all time. It is a matter of fate. If your father was a Kohen then you are a Kohen.

There are three classes in Judaism, and they all depend on family. When the Jewish people became a nation at Mt. Sinai they consisted of twelve tribes and the tribe of Levi was selected to be the representatives in all matters of religious ceremonial life to serve as teachers and mentors for their brethren.

Aaron, Moshe’s brother, a member of the Levite tribe was selected to be the first Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and his descendants were ordained Kohanim (priests) to perform the various services in the Holy Temple.

While the rest of the tribes, collectively known as Israelites, received portions in the Promised Land of Israel, with every member receiving personal property for farming, the Levites and Kohanim were not included in this inheritance. They were given 48 cities to live in, but no farmland to feed themselves. They were sustained divinely ordered compulsory taxes paid by every Jew to the Levites and Kohanim on a regular basis.

The Torah in this week’s parsha clarifies why they were excluded from the inheritance. “The entire tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel… the L-rd is his inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 18:1,2)

Instead of losing out they were granted the golden opportunity to devote themselves entirely to G-d’s service without a worry in the world. Never distracted by the need to work the fields or keep track of the harvest times and the rain seasons. Their needs were provided for by divine command and they were always prepared to serve.

So aside for their religious duties, the Levites were unique among the people by dint of their G-d given gift to be dedicated to divine service all the time. Seemingly this gift is determined by fate.

Maimonides maintains it is not so. “Not only the tribe of Levi, but anyone whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before G-d to serve Him and minister to Him and to know G-d… he is sanctified as holy of holies. G-d will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites.”

Everyone can be a Kohen. Not to observe the religious duties Kohanim are obligated in, but to be selflessly dedicated to G-d is a level we should all try to reach. And if you can’t do it 24/7 then five minutes a day is also valuable. Set aside time every day to be a Kohen. Unplug from the world and learn some Torah without distraction.

The more you try it, the more you’ll like it and the more you’ll do it.

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