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Rabbis' Blog

The Most Consequential Jew

 

Everyone wants to be consequential. Nearing election day I constantly hear that “this is the most consequential election in history.” Whether this assertion is true or not I fully understand the appeal it has. People appreciate doing important things and if voting is always important, how much more so if so much hangs in the balance and depends on my single vote.

Equally intriguing is the common discussion of who is the most important Jew to ever live. Since two Jews always produce three opinions I’m sure everyone reading this message has a different historical figure in mind, but I think we can all agree that Avraham, the first Jew, is definitely on all of our short lists. And for good reason; the first gets the credit for paving the way for the rest of us.

In this week’s parsha Lech Lecha we learn of the developing relationship between G-d and Avraham, which climaxed with them entering into an eternal covenant. G-d commanded Avraham to circumcise himself and all the male members of his household and to transmit this tradition to his descendants.

With the Mitzvah of Bris Milah the divine relationship between G-d and Avraham was no longer limited to the spiritual, intellectual and conceptual realm; it permeated the physical dimension as well.

Although the actual deed is exclusive to males, the covenant it represents is relevant to all Jews, females included. Throughout history Jewish women were equally involved in perpetuating the timeless Mitzvah of circumcision to the point of literal self sacrifice, because it is the bedrock of our Jewishness and links us to the unbreakable chain of our heritage.

This covenant is a joyous one and circumcision is customarily accompanied with a festive party celebrating this important milestone in the Jewish life cycle - but we all know that circumcision is a very painful experience. Why did G-d associate the bedrock of our Jewishness to something so painful?

Avraham gets the credit for being the trailblazer, the one who proved to the world that one can believe in the true G-d and overcome the unbearable challenges associated with going against the stream. All of us benefit from Avraham’s experience and when our Jewishness is challenged, the arc of history reminds us that Judaism ultimately prevails, cushioning the pain and suffering we may currently endure at the moment.

But nothing can prepare you for the physical pain of circumcision. The fact that many did it before you does not mitigate the natural pain, especially for an eight day old child. Everyone is the “first” when it comes to circumcision, and every Jew is the “first” and “most consequential” when it comes to our divine covenant.

Who is the most consequential Jew?

You are. Do something about it.

 

 

Causing Trouble - Together

 

Children are wonderful but when they cause trouble they need to be disciplined. Many parents will confess that when their kids get into trouble together, the joy of seeing their sibling cooperation on display - albeit for a naughty purpose - is so wonderful, and they dial down the scolding and punishing.

This week’s parshah Noach is all about disasters. First we learn that humanity deteriorated to the point that thievery, murder and promiscuity was the living standard; every man for himself in the most intense and gruesome fashion.

G-d was so disgusted and appalled by the moral and ethical state of affairs that a complete reset was needed. Every living specimen was annihilated from the face of the earth with only eight humans and a sample couple of each specimen miraculously surviving the year long disaster on the Ark to start it all up again.

After giving the world a good sanitizing G-d was confident humanity would never descend into such chaos and promised Noach such devastation would never happen again, placing the rainbow in the clouds as an assurance of that oath. Lo and behold, a few generations later, as humanity started repopulating the earth, they once again descended into the moral and ethical abyss.

The conspiracy theorists among them pontificated that the Great Flood would happen approximately every 1,500 and they needed to wage war with the vengeful G-d to ensure their legacy will not evaporate like that of the pre flood generation. Rallying the vast majority of civilization, they settled in the flatlands, built a huge city and in its center started constructing a massive tower meant to reach the heavens. They figured it was their best chance to beat G-d who threatened their eternal legacy.

In response to this blatant blasphemy G-d determined it was time to disperse humanity by robbing them of their ability to communicate with each other. Up until that point everyone spoke the same language. All of a sudden seventy new languages were transplanted into their minds and a new world order of seventy distinct nations - grouped together by their common language - emerged.

It was a traumatic transformation which caused much turmoil and quickly terminated the massive construction project.

Why was the pre flood generation annihilated while the post flood generation was merely dispersed? Surely attempting to wage war on G-d is a grave sin worthy of severe consequences. These two punishments are extremely disproportionate.

Our sages explain that the unity of the post flood generation was their saving grace. Although their sin was against G-d Himself, their cooperation and cohesion set them apart from the discord and chaos that characterized the pre flood generation. While building the massive tower to fight with G-d was bad and had to stop, their unity signaled the spark of morality and divinity still alive within them and the possibility for rehabilitation. When everyone's for themself, all hope is lost.

While there is certainly much that sets people apart from each other, remember that we are in the journey of life together, and emphasizing our commonality is the first step to preparing our world for its ultimate perfection in the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

 

 

 

Would you like to start from Genesis 1:1?

Shortly after Shainy and I moved to town ten years ago I developed an elevator pitch for starting private Torah sessions. “Have you ever studied the entire Torah from Genesis 1:1?

Whether the one being pitched accepted the offer or not, the pitch almost always elicited a thoughtful expression and a level of interest in the topic. Everyone would love to study the whole Torah.

Here is a trend about Bible knowledge I’ve discovered. Many have last heard Bible stories in their childhood and even more struggle with finding the relevance these stories have in our day-to-day lives.

This week we begin the Torah from the beginning and the opening storyline is already rife with plenty of questions. Granted it’s important to know that G-d created the world, but are the details necessary? Must we know what was created on each day of creation to appreciate that G-d is in control of reality?

Torah is not a book of history or law, rather a guide to life. So everything we read in the Five Books of Moses is meant to inform every detail of our lives. G-d expects us all to be creators as well and included His creation methodology in Torah so we can emulate it.

Let’s start with the first day of creation. “G-d said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.”

Intuitively light is associated with a source of light such as a light bulb, or at least to the sun. The problem is that the sun was created on the fourth day and there is no indication of any other known light source being around then. If the light created on the first day was not the light of the sun - what was its source? Besides, who needed light then anyway?

The Talmud explains that this initial light was of a more spiritual nature, eventually hidden from view by the naked eye, replaced by the light of the sun and other sources of light. The light of the first day represents divine clarity; the truth that G-d is present in every detail of creation. This knowledge was hidden from us in order to give us the opportunity of free choice; to choose right from wrong and good from evil.

This divine clarity was revealed at the beginning of creation to teach us that at the beginning of every endeavor the purpose and goal must be clear. Upon waking in the morning and embarking on a new journey to making our world a more perfect place one must take the time to meditate on the clear presence of G-d in our lives. Reciting Modeh Ani, wrapping Tefillin, giving charity and learning some Torah before diving into the daily grind will guide you to having a meaningful and accomplishing day.

And this is only just the beginning.

On November 10 we will begin a new JLI study series called Secrets of the Bible. We will discuss some of the most puzzling Bible narratives, dispel myths, discover mystical depth and most importantly find true relevance to our lives in a modern era. I invite you to join us on this incredible journey.

Please click here to learn more about the course and to register.

 

 

Simchat Torah: Owning our Jewishness

 A young boy once asked a prominent philanthropist how he made it in life.

“Son, when I was nine years old I bought an apple for a penny, cleaned and shined it for hours and sold it for a nickel. I bought five apples and shined them for hours and sold each one for a nickel… and then my uncle died and I inherited his fortune.”

Being Jewish is a heritage thing, but there is something to be said about owning our Jewishness as well.

Tonight we begin celebrating the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the final days of the joyous holiday of Sukkot as articulated in the Torah, but many are more familiar with the second part of this two day holiday which is called Simchat Torah by all. Each week on Shabbat we read a portion of the Torah from the original scroll and according to this millenia-old Torah-reading schedule it works out that every Jew in the world will complete learning the Five Books of Moses this coming Sunday.

The Torah reading schedule was determined at the genesis of our nationhood and it is puzzling that the start and end date was set for the final day of the Tishrei holiday season instead of coinciding with the festival of Shavuot, the anniversary of when G-d gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

While the Torah was first officially given to the Jews on the festival of Shavuot, they almost lost it forty days later. When Moshe came down from the mountain and saw them serving an idol, he smashed the two tablets containing the ten commandments he had just received from G-d who was furious at the Jews’ treason and threatened to annihilate them immediately. Moshe secured atonement on our behalf and eighty days later, on Yom Kippur, received a second set of tablets containing the eternal covenant between ourselves and G-d.

Being in possession of the Torah is a reason to rejoice but there is a profound difference between Shavuot and Yom Kippur. On Shavuot we received the Torah as heirs of a tradition we never invested in and on Yom  Kippur we earned the rights to Torah by learning from our mistakes and correcting our behavior. The joy of Shavuot can be compared to the joy of a young child landing a major inheritance he or she never worked for whereas the joy of Yom Kippur can be compared to an entrepreneur who toiled on the startup for years and finally experienced its big breakout moment.

The yearly Torah study schedule coincides with the weeks following Yom Kippur, and the unbridled celebration in Torah happens now, because Yom Kippur represents our efforts to connect with G-d on our own accord and not as inheritors of an unearned heritage. Although we all possess the Torah by default, the true joy in Torah can only be expressed and felt once we’ve invested time and energy in allowing the Torah to possess us.

As we celebrate Simchas Torah in a social distancing era, let us make every effort to come closer to Torah this coming year. Now is the time to begin from Genesis 1:1 and allow ourselves to truly own the beautiful Torah we’ve possessed for over 3,332 years. Join a Torah class in person or online and make this an essential part of your routine.

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