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Rabbis' Blog

Goodness is Viral Too

This morning I studied Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) with a friend and we had the great pleasure of completing the entire book after many months of weekly study. The final paragraph of this timeless treasure of Torah insight and wisdom states that everything in our world was created for the purpose of glorifying G-d - our creator.

Fundamental to Jewish belief is the idea that everything is an expression of G-d and can teach us something unique in perfecting our lives and the world around us.

Coronavirus is a big deal and every day it affects more and more people. Countries are shutting their borders, markets are tumbling and world leaders are hard pressed to find solutions. On a personal level, my family members who serve as Chabad emissaries in China were compelled to leave in haste and their communities have been displaced. What can be “glorious” about this uncontrollable nightmare?

The physical, emotional and financial toll this health menace is having on so many is terrible and I pray it all comes to a swift end. But coronavirus is one of the greatest illustrations of an important Torah message that we often find hard to relate to.

The source of the coronavirus is believed to be a "wet market" in Wuhan, China. The poor hygiene created the perfect setting for infections originating from bats to spread to animals sold there. Think of it: a few infected chickens in Central China allegedly caused a public health crisis currently gripping humanity with fear.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the mitzvah to build the Mishkan (tabernacle) in the Israelite camp in the desert as a traveling temple for G-d. Hundreds of years later King Solomon built the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem which he designed with “narrowing windows.”

Typically windows then were designed to be narrow on the outside and wider on the inside to diffuse the outside sunlight inside the structure. But these were designed narrow on the inside and wider on the outside symbolizing the fact that the Beit Hamikdash is not illuminated from the outside light, rather the entire world is illuminated by the divine light emanating from the Beit Hamikdash.

When G-d communicated the instructions to build a Beit Hamikdash to Moshe He said “Make a sanctuary for Me so that I may dwell within them.” Even in the absence of the physical Beit Hamikdash, twice destroyed thousands of years ago, its function continues through every one of us, and we need to have “narrowing windows;” to be a source of light and inspiration to the entire world.

Never underestimate the impact your one mitzvah can have on the entire world. If illness can be viral, goodness most certainly can be as well. And when we all appreciate this truth and act upon it joyfully, we will prepare the entire planet for an era of peace and tranquility for all, when all illness will cease, with the coming of Moshiach.


Giving Every Single Day

Charity is defined as “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.” It is the bedrock of a compassionate society and without charity humanity would be in a lot of trouble. Following this logic, charity or Tzedakah is a response to crisis. Someone is hungry, feed them; a family is homeless, find them shelter; and the list goes on.

Judaism believes that Tzedakah is not a remedy for a societal ill rather an integral part of who we are.

This week, in addition to reading the weekly Torah portion of Mishpatim during synagogue services on Shabbat, we will read from a second Torah a paragraph titled Shekalim. In Holy Temple times there was an obligation for every Jew to contribute the value of a half shekel to a communal fund which paid for the daily communal sacrifices in the Holy Temple.

There were many wealthy philanthropists willing to foot the bill for the daily rituals in the Holy Temple, but G-d determined that everyone, rich and poor, young and old alike should financially contribute to this fund, to teach us the true meaning of Tzedakah.

Surely there is always a need for the big dollar donations and the gracious generosity of those blessed with wealth, but the mitzvah of Shekalim emphasizes that one need not have millions to be in a position to give or to be obligated to give.

Everything in reality is a giver and a receiver. We are constantly discovering how every detail of creation is part of an elaborate tapestry which depends on everything else to operate properly. The same is true with humanity, since absolute independence does not exist. In the bigger picture, all of creation is dependent on G-d, our Creator to constantly give us the ability to exist.

So the ritual of Tzedakah giving, the dynamic between giver and receiver, is the ultimate expression of our core reality and therefore a mitzvah incumbent on all and should be observed every day.

True, there are times when we are called upon to give large donations; a humanitarian crisis, an opportunity to enhance communal life or to express thanksgiving to G-d for a special occasion. But Tzedakah, in smaller amounts, must become a daily ritual, as a reflection of the constant Tzedakah dynamic playing out in our reality all the time.

So in addition to your recurring online donations and signing checks to your favorite organizations or causes at whichever frequency you choose or giving money to a homeless person you encounter on the way to work, be sure to have a dedicated Tzedakah box within reach so you can give every single day. On Shabbat and festivals when we are prohibited from handling money, the Tzedakah box will remind us to “give” in other ways, such as smiling to another, offering good advice or helping someone work through a dilemma.

Because giving should happen every day.



The Whole World Needs to be Ready


What will it take to perfect our world? The Torah teaches that one day we will live in an era of peace and tranquility, in a world free of hatred and jealousy, cleansed of illness, poverty and hunger. This will all be possible because every organism on earth will be conscious of G-d our Creator and will strive to live in sync with its purpose.

It will be a dream come true and it can’t happen soon enough but we need to prepare for this exciting time today through adopting this divinely inspired attitude to life more often. Is this a task exclusively for Jews?

In this week’s parsha we learn about Matan Torah, the climactic divine revelation at Sinai, which set in motion the ability for Jews to elevate the physical reality through Mitzvot. Whereas beforehand a physical object remained mundane and meaningless despite all the good done with it, all of that changed after the revelation at Sinai. Even the most coarse and mundane physical reality can now be permeated with divine meaning.

It is striking therefore, that the Torah prefaces the story of the events at Sinai with the arrival of Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law to the Israelite camp. This reunion was so significant, that the entire parshah in which we read about Matan Torah is called “Yisro”!

The Zohar states that Matan Torah could not happen until Yisro converted to Judaism. Why?

Yisro was a man of great accomplishments with an impressive resume. Aside from being a former trusted advisor to Pharaoh, he had served as the highest ranking priest in every heathen institution known to man at the time. He was a deep thinker and his approach to idolatry stemmed from his vast knowledge of nature and even spiritual celestial beings. Considered the foremost intellectual powerhouse of pagan traditions, he was accorded many honorary titles and enjoyed a life of wealth and privilege.

But above all, he was a man of integrity, genuinely searching for the truth, which inevitably led him to acknowledge the fallacy of idolatry and to embrace the belief in the One G-d, Creator of the Universe.

Although many miracles had occurred during the exodus from Egypt, a significant divine revelation unprecedented in world history, it did not empower us to elevate our world to a higher state of consciousness. Subduing the world is not enough, we need to persuade it to change as well.

Yisro’s conversion signified that the world was ready for real change and the revelations that followed provided us the template to prepare our world for a time when G-dliness will pervade every detail of existence. Secluding ourselves in a cocoon of religious piety might feel warm and comforting but our mission is to engage the entire planet and inspire humanity to greater moral and ethical heights, in anticipation for a time that we all wish will begin right now.

Here is why a Jew will do a Mitzvah


I always wondered how it is that a person can discover they are Jewish and minutes later be wrapping Tefillin and purchasing mezuzos for their home. This happens in the real world and fairly frequently.

Think of the Muslim family in Turkey who discovered their grandmother was a Jewish shtetl girl who fled the Holocaust and hid her identity, and a month later were sitting at a Seder table celebrating Pesach for the first time in their lives. (Watch their story here.) What’s the deal?

In this week’s parsha, one week after their miraculous redemption, the Israelites faced their greatest challenge as a nation. Their Egyptian masters were hot in pursuit and with the raging sea in front of them, there was no escape.

“Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the L-rd.”

It seems perfectly logical that the Israelites prayed to G-d to save them from the terrifying danger, but the Rebbe provides us with a novel insight to the story.

The Israelites had been promised by G-d that they will make it to the Promised Land. If they had complete trust in G-d and therefore confident that everything would work out for the best, why pray? And if they did not have perfect trust in G-d, and therefore felt threatened by the pursuing Egyptians, why waste time praying to G-d?

Rashi in his foundational interpretation explains that “they seized the art of their ancestors [i.e., they prayed].” Drawing on sources from the Book Genesis, Rashi proves that our forefathers did not only pray to G-d in times of need, rather it was a constant habit of theirs. Prayer was not a means to an end but an end for itself, an expression of their relationship with G-d. Praying was their craft and career and it became a familial trait for Jews to pray.

So when the Israelites found themselves trapped between the sea and the Egyptians, even though they were confident everything would be fine, they prayed nonetheless because praying was hereditary to them.

Exodus was the birth of our nation and every detail of the story teaches us something about ourselves as Jews. Torah study and Mitzvah observance are not only functionary elements of Jewish life; they are imbedded in our psyche as hereditary habits.

It is possible for a Jew to be unaware of these latent habits due to a host of external circumstances. But when afforded the opportunity to do a Mitzvah, the most uninitiated and estranged can quickly agree to do so because it is really more of a homecoming than a curiosity.

So the next time you encounter Jews who know nothing about Judaism or may even seem hostile, be sure to offer them a Mitzvah because it’s what comes most naturally to them.


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