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Rabbis' Blog

You've Been Drafted


As Jews we are sensitive to the way people refer to us. Some titles are derogatory and borne of prejudice while others are neutral and harmless. But when G-d refers to us with a title we need to pay attention.

In this week’s parsha we learn the most important chapter of the story of our liberation: the moment Pharaoh was humbled to the point of allowing us to actually leave Egypt. 

Up until then the Torah refers to the Jews as Bnei Yisrael (children of Israel) or Ivrim (Hebrews). But when the Torah announces that the Jews finally left Egypt, it states “and it came to pass in that very day, that all the legions of the L-rd went out of the land of Egypt.”

No longer just children or descendants of legendary patriarchs or the “first-born son of G-d.” The people leaving Egypt are now “Tzvios Hashem - G-d’s Legions” - in common parlance G-d’s soldiers.

To use the analogy of war, POWs are typically liberated after the war is over and their freedom is symbolic of the end of the struggle. Contrastly, our liberation from Egypt signified the beginning of the struggle.

The dramatic events of Exodus did not happen in order to undo the tragic injustice of the Israelite enslavement. It was in order to draft a unique group of men, women and children to G-d’s army to wage the war on materialism and egocentrism by bringing the awareness of a Higher Power to every place on the globe.

This battle has been fought on all fronts for the past 3,331 years. Every geographical location, every social sphere and every era in history has been impacted by the teachings of Torah due to the devoted service of G-d’s Army.

On the 10th day of Shevat, 1951 the Lubavitcher Rebbe formally accepted the leadership of the Chabad Lubavitch movement by delivering an original chassidic discourse with this singular message: we are the ones who will victoriously end this epic war and we are provided every resource necessary to get the job done. To usher in the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

We’ve all been drafted equally at the birth of our nation, but if you are reading this message today it means you’ve been chosen to complete the task Jews of previous generations could only dream of.

As we mark the seventieth year of the Rebbe’s leadership this Wednesday may we all absorb this empowering and humbling message and seek ways to expedite the conclusion of this multi-generational war by increasing our Torah study and Mitzvah observance.

You’ve been drafted and victory is the only option.


Is prayer a crutch?

I am frequently asked if prayer is a crutch. There is a prevalent misconception that people turn to G-d when things are bad and wish to contract out their troubles to a Higher Power, instead of taking personal responsibility.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

In this week’s parsha we continue the narrative of Exodus, with a focus on the famous Ten Plagues. Every school child is fascinated by the “creativity” of such an elaborate punishment being meted out to the perpetrators of such gross injustice. But while the plagues were certainly the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to Abraham that the nation who will afflict his descendants will be punished, this is not the entire story.

In every dialogue between Moshe and Pharaoh regarding the plagues a specific divine message is consistently communicated: I am doing this so that you shall know I am G-d.

When Moshe first approached Pharoah with G-d’s command to release the Israelites, Pharaoh brazenly asked “Who is this G-d you speak of?” The zeitgeist of Egypt, the superpower of civilization at the time, was that Pharaoh controls the forces of nature and the zodiac. Pharoah challenged the very notion that there could be a power greater than himself.

The ten plagues were designed to destroy this misguided mindset and set the record straight for humanity. G-d controls every detail of reality and can do with it as He pleases.

But the message is more profound. Water turned into blood for seven days, not only to prove that G-d can change water, but mainly to illustrate that natural water with its ability to bring life to plants, animals and humans only does so because of G-d’s blessing.

The lengthy process of the ten plagues prepared the Jewish people and the world for the revelation at Sinai and our subsequent mission to reveal the divine in every detail of reality. Torah and Mitzvos inform us how to put creation in sync with its creator.

In contemporary terms the message is clear. In order to make a living one must work. But the financial success of any endeavor one may undertake depends on G-d alone. True, one cannot sit in the synagogue, pray for sustenance and expect a million dollars to just appear in the bank account. But the natural pathway to financial success one chooses to follow must be in sync with G-d’s desires in order to be truly successful.

Prayer is the opportunity we have three times a day to be mindful of the fact that everything is orchestrated by G-d. The more we remember this, the easier it is for us to withstand the temptation of considering ourselves the masterminds of our success.

Carve out some more time for daily prayer and seek to be mindful of this important message routinely.


Collecting the Stragglers


To be the next US president, you just need to get a higher voter turnout than the other candidate. As long as you get a majority of the vote you will be the next leader of the free world. (I know that’s an oversimplification, but please bear with me.) To lead the Jewish nation, eking out a majority is not enough. It’s actually worthless.

This week’s parsha is overwhelmingly focused on the profile of Moshe, the redeemer and the message of redemption. 

After marrying Tziporah the daughter of Yisro he served as the shepherd of his father-in-law’s sheep choosing the Sinai desert as pasturing ground. It was in the desolate wilderness that an episode occurred which earned him the role of redeemer and eternal leader of G-d’s people.

A young scrawny sheep ran away from the flock. All the standards of shepherding sheep at the time called for Moshe to ignore the invaluable little sheep and to focus his attention on the large flock under his care. Nevertheless, Moshe broke the rules, chased after the tiny sheep, lifted it in his hands and returned it to the flock.

At that moment G-d revealed himself to Moshe at the burning bush, gave him the mission of redeeming the Jewish people and the rest is history. Moshe’s impressive pedigree and previous accomplishments were not enough. Once it was illustrated that to him even a tiny sheep was indispensable G-d confidently entrusted him with His people.

The Haftarah read during synagogue services this Shabbat following the Torah reading is an excerpt from Isaiah which contains the following job description of Moshiach at the time of redemption. “V’atem Teluktu L’echad Echad - you will be gathered together one by one.” Since Moshiach will arrive at a time when Jews will be scattered all over the world, his first mission will be to gather us all together.

There are several expressions for “gathering” in Hebrew, and the choice of the word “Teluktu” provides a profound insight into how Moshiach will gather each and every Jew when the time comes.

The root word for “Teluktu” is “Leket” which is a title for one of the agricultural taxes to benefit the poor obligated by the Torah during harvest. While collecting stalks of wheat into bundles, the one or two stalks that fall out of your hands must be left on the ground to be “gathered” by the poor for them to eat.

Just as the gathering of these solitary leftover stalks of wheat sustain and bring life to the poor, gathering the lone solitary Jews dispersed all over the globe will not be a monotonous chore for Moshiach. It will be the most exciting and satisfying work of all time.

We are all Moshiach’s agents to gather every Jew as we unite in preparing our world for redemption. Although it may seem challenging at times, be like Moshe and Moshiach and find pleasure and joy in reuniting a “straggling Jew” with our glorious heritage.


Want to live forever?


“Our forefather Yaakov never died.” That’s a direct quote from the Talmud and you read it correctly. Strange?

The Talmudic sages found it strange as well and asked the obvious questions. Did the Egyptians embalm Yaakov for naught? Wasn’t there a funeral procession that attracted the attention of the world stretching from Egypt to Hebron?

In answer the Talmud declares, “Just as his descendants are alive, so to Yaakov is alive.”

This statement does not merely imply that Yaakov’s memory continues to live on through his descendants. This can be said about every human being. Rather Yaakov’s life today is as tangible and relevant in our world as the lives of his descendants walking on planet earth. What does this mean?

This week we conclude the first book of the Torah “Bereishis” with the story of Yaakov’s death in Egypt, which paved the way for the Israelite enslavement by the Egyptians. It is striking that although the theme of the parsha is the death of Yaakov on foreign soil, the name of the parsha is “Vayechi - and he lived.” This is so because Yaakov’s 147 years of life on earth only became truly meaningful after the events following his passing unfolded.

Yaakov’s life was never defined by his physical or material needs and successes. It was all about living each moment to the fullest in the service of G-d and educating and inspiring his children to do the same. The fact that this continued to happen in the morally depraved land of Egypt serves as the greatest testimony to the fact that the morals and ethics Yaakov represents transcend the boundaries of time and space.

In preparation for his passing Yaakov focused on his children and the future. Instead of reminiscing on his accomplished past, he blessed each one of his twelve sons, defining their respective paths of divine service and how they will each uniquely impact the future of Judaism.

The story of Yaakov’s legacy continues to be written today. So long as there is an unbroken chain of generations living life as he expects, regardless of the circumstances, he is palpably here because this defined his life all along.

This awareness empowers us to realize that each time we do a mitzvah or learn a passage of Torah we are embodying the presence of all of Jewish history linking us to our roots. And just as Yaakov succeeded in imparting such an important legacy to us, we must do the same for our children, continuing the everlasting life of Yaakov (also named Yisrael) and then we are able to proudly proclaim Am Yisrael Chai!


Responding to antisemitism

Early this week the world was shocked to learn of a sadistic antisemitic attack at a rabbi's home in Monsey during a Chanukah celebration. Coming on the heels of many more attacks throughout New York and New Jersey dubbed a "slow-rolling pogrom" many are asking Jews, especially those who are easily identifiable as Jews, how they feel about continuing to advertise their Jewishness.

Here in El Paso the media asked me if I ever felt threatened due to my mode of dress, and I emphatically responded that in El Paso I have received nothing but respect.

But the heightened antisemitism in various pockets of the world is deeply troubling and the question is how to handle it.

Today I choose not to wrangle with the question of how to deal with antisemites,  because I believe it is more vital to first determine how a Jew should absorb the situation, creating a context with which we can go forward in crafting a plan.

In this week's parsha we learn of the dramatic showdown between Yehuda and Yosef. Yosef was the viceroy of Egypt, credited with saving all civilization from a raging famine - the most powerful man alive. When Yehuda and his brothers came to Egypt to purchase food they were unaware of the viceroy's true identity and when they were unjustifiably detained and falsely accused by the viceroy of spying, they were in serious trouble.

Their situation became intolerably dangerous when their youngest brother Binyomin was framed with stealing the viceroy's goblet and his becoming an Egyptian slave forever became inevitable. There was no good way out of their predicament and all seemed lost.

At this moment of complete despair Yehuda bravely approached the viceroy and delivered an ultimatum: Either Binyomin is returned to his family or there will be war. Although it later was revealed that he was speaking to his long lost brother who would never allow for such a thing to happen, for Yehuda at the moment the danger was palpable and the risk of such a confrontation was real.

Nevertheless, despite being surrounded by the mightiest warriors alive and in the presence of a man who had the legal authority to do anything, Yehuda projected the essence of Jewish pride: Judaism and Jews will never be held captive to any outside force.

Jews are called Yehudim because we each have a streak of Yehuda's bravery embedded in our DNA. When challenged we must remember that hiding under our covers and becoming invisible will never work.

There are haters out there and we must protect ourselves while helping society purge itself of this menace. But until our world is cleansed of all evil we must respond by bravely increasing our own personal Torah learning and Mitzvah observance and making ourselves more identifiable to the world. Instead of becoming captive to outside pressures and intimidation we have the ability to rise above the fray and take responsibility for our Judaism and our future.

We must respond to the darkness of hatred by increasing in the light of Torah and Mitzvos.

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