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Rabbis' Blog

Welcome Back to School

 

Today millions of American children finish the school year and I salute our educators for meeting the challenge for seeing this semester through to its conclusion despite the rude disruptions we all experienced these past three months.

I find it ironic that the school year ends right around the time we celebrate the anniversary of when we all started going to school thousands of years ago.

When the Israelites were redeemed from Egyptian slavery on Pesach Moshe led them on a forty-four day journey to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah six days later on Shavuot. Our sages describe this journey as Moshe “bringing the children of Israel to Cheder (Hebrew/Yiddish expression for school) to learn Torah from their Melamed (Hebrew/Yiddish expression for teacher) G-d A-lmighty.”

Before entering school students need to be prepared with supplies, books and most importantly an openness to learning, but the preparation for entering G-d’s school at Sinai was of an entirely different caliber.

This coming Sunday will be Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the first day of the Jewish month Sivan, which marks 3,332 years since our ancestors arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai. The Torah records this monumental event with a sentence which seems to be grammatically incorrect. “And Israel (singular) camped by the mountain.” There were millions of Jews camping at the mountain and the biblical expression implies that it was a camp of one?

Our sages explain that for the first time in history millions of Jews were on the same exact page intellectually and emotionally. They were of one heart and mind to receive the Torah. All of their differences disappeared as they united in the singular purpose of being worthy to become G-d’s ambassadors to the world through Torah and Mitzvot.

What’s the connection between Jewish unity and preparing to learn Torah from G-d? If you think about it, there is no way for the Creator’s divine, transcendent wisdom to be grasped by lowly mortals. It is a contradiction in terms! Nevertheless, G-d wished to override this fundamental division and allow for these polar opposites to unite.

The greatest spiritual heights we can achieve on our own are no preparation for the awesome revelation at Sinai. But achieving unity within our ranks even when our differences may seem so monumental is the most appropriate precursor to the “unity of opposites” that happened with the giving of the Torah.

Each year on Shavuot we receive the Torah anew and are once again welcome to join the academy of divine wisdom. Prepare for the “new school year” by finding ways to connect with others and nurturing a culture of mutual understanding and love. There is no better time to start than now, because the school bell will ring in under a week.

 

What can we take from all this?

 

“Empathy,” my friend said to me this week. “We need to have empathy for people and realize that everyone is handling this crisis differently. Folks are scared.”

He is deeply involved in the COVID-19 response locally and will be the first to tell you that no matter what measures are implemented, reactions will vary greatly due to personal circumstances. The data is evolving, the analysis is fluid and leadership on all levels is facing challenges our modern society has never imagined. No wonder people are frightened.

As we work together to adapt to our new reality it would be prudent to seek the positive things we can take from these unprecedented times. I believe the fact that we now feel so small and intimidated by a mysterious force beyond our control is an opportunity to reframe our approach to life.

The name of this week’s parsha gives reference to the fact that the Torah and Mitzvot were revealed to us at Mount Sinai. When the talmudists wish to express the idea that our tradition traces back to the original divine communication between G-d and Moshe they often use terms such as “received from Sinai.” Why is the original location of the revelation so important?

Mount Sinai was not the tallest nor the prettiest mountain. It was rather small and plain. Tradition teaches that this mountain was chosen to teach us the importance of humility. If so, why did G-d not give us the Torah in a valley? Because the Jewish way of life demands pride and a sense of spiritual elevation.

How can these two seemingly opposite traits complement each other?

Here is how the Rebbe defines the teachings of Chabad philosophy which seeks to uncover the essence of Judaism:

Chassidus is Divine intelligence, an understanding which shows man how small he is, and how great he can become. (Hayom Yom 19 Iyar)

Judaism is forever anchored to Mount Sinai because Torah provides us the framework in which we can appreciate how small (Sinai) we truly are within context of the awesome divine reality, but that specifically within this context we are capable of achieving true greatness (Mount).

COVID-19 has jolted all of us to the jarring realization that we are very small. Instead of becoming confused and despondent in the face of this perceived human failure, let’s embrace our tininess in a wholesome and healthy matter. Realize that we are tiny yet integral cogs in a massive divine plan and discover how we can achieve the greatest heights by fulfilling our G-d given mission.

While we can’t control the virus at large we can control how we make our world a better and more divine space. Make Torah study a priority in life, take on a new and daring Mitzvah or boldly increase your charitable giving. Be humbled yet empowered - just like Mount Sinai.

 

Coming out of the cave

 

It’s been two months now since staying home is the best way to preserve our health. Although prudent during a pandemic, most of us are getting tired and irritated from the lack of personal social interaction we cherish and many are asking what could possibly be the silver lining of such a reality, aside for the practical health benefits.

This Tuesday we will celebrate Lag B’Omer, anniversary of the passing of the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. While it seems counterintuitive to party on the day such an important Jewish leader passed away, it was Rabbi Shimon himself who instructed his students to mark the day as a nation-wide celebration.

Rabbi Shimon lived in the era immediately following the destruction of the second Holy Temple and his leadership was crucial to preserving Torah scholarship and observance for generations to come. His signature contribution to Judaism is the foundational book of Jewish mysticism called the Zohar and all of Chassidic philosophy traces its roots in his teachings.

One day a Jewish traitor reported to the Romans that Rabbi Shimon critiqued them and the local governor ordered his execution. Together with his son Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Shimon fled to the mountains and hid in a cave for thirteen years, until the governor died and his decree was annulled. For thirteen years the two sages had no contact with humanity and lived off the fruits of a carob tree that had miraculously grown at the cave’s opening and the refreshing waters of a nearby spring. They studied Torah day and night while enduring immense physical suffering.

Upon rejoining society Rabbi Shimon immediately sought to be helpful. In this week’s parsha we learn about the lifestyle of the Kohanim, the priestly family dedicated to serving in the Holy Temple. They are forbidden from coming in contact with a corpse or a grave so as not to contract ritual impurity, that would bar them from entering the Holy Temple at any time.

Even in the absence of the Holy Temple this restriction is still in place, and in Rabbi Shimon’s town there was a grave in the middle of a busy thoroughfare that had been lost. Somehow the grave marker had disappeared and the local Kohanim were unable to use the road for fear of walking over the grave.

Utilizing his divine supernatural powers Rabbi Shimon located the grave and life became more convenient for the local Kohanim.

The fact he was secluded in a cave for thirteen years did not make him aloof and grow apart from his people. On the contrary, his enforced solitary confinement strengthened his desire to make the world a better place.

Our current sheltering will not drag on for nearly as long as Rabbi Shimon’s but let’s ensure that the time we spend away from others nurtures a stronger desire within us to connect with each other and make a positive impact on society at large.

Be like Rabbi Shimon. Utilize the time alone for more Torah study and when we come out of all this we will be better equipped than ever before to make the world around us a better place.

 

Who would have known that silence could be so loud?

 

It was a gut punch. Hearing that my 43 year old uncle in Germany passed away over Shabbat caused a searing sensation of pain and sorrow inside that has not subsided for a week now. So young, so fast and during the busiest and happiest time of life.

Rabbi Benny Wolff and his wife Sterni established a permanent Chabad presence in Hannover, Germany fifteen years ago and have served the local Jewish community as well as thousands of visitors non-stop. Their eight young children are part and parcel of their vital work and the Chabad House of Hannover is a source of genuine warmth and inspiration for so many.

Upon Benny’s tragic passing many wondered if this operation of kindness and love would survive, but then my aunt made a decision that shocked everyone but surprised no one. Instead of bringing Benny to Israel, he was buried in Hannover and their family is staying there to continue their mission.

In this week’s parsha we learn about the service in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. There was a room there called the “Kodesh Hakadashim (Holy of Holies)” which was off limits to everyone. In this space the highest level of divine revelation was manifest on earth and any mortal who dared enter died immediately. The only exception was the Kohen Gadol - the High Priest who entered on Yom Kippur.

The holiest person, entered the holiest space on the holiest day of the year and achieved atonement for us all.

The first man to observe this sacred service was Aharon the High Priest and the Torah specifies that the details of the Yom Kippur service were communicated to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two eldest sons. During the inauguration of the tabernacle, as Aharon and his sons started off their lifelong careers as Kohanim (priests) serving on behalf of the Jewish nation, Nadav and Avihu suddenly died.

It was a crushing blow which threatened to torpedo the most important celebration in Jewish history and Moshe sought to console his brother Aharon by extolling his son’s unique spiritual greatness. But Aharon did not seek consolation, nor did he collapse under the excruciating pain. “Aharon was silent” the Torah records and continued with his duties without interruption.

Aharon is the paragon of unwavering faith while experiencing incomprehensible loss. He was undeniably devastated from his loss, but never faltered in his service to G-d and the Jewish nation.

As I watched Benny’s funeral via Zoom I noticed that after the recital of Kaddish, Sterni gathered her children in front of his fresh grave. On the live feed I heard silence but one of the few participants present (due to social distancing) shared her words with us afterwards.

“Father is buried here and we are staying here. He will continue his mission from heaven and we will continue our mission down here.”

I had just witnessed Aharon’s heroic silence manifest in our time. A young mother of eight dedicating her life to continue her divine mission in the face of devastating loss.

We established a fund to help support them as they continue life with so much strength and inspiration and I am so grateful to everyone who has already contributed. If you have not yet had the chance to do so, please consider donating to this worthy cause so near and dear to my entire family.

Please click here to donate: charidy.com/wolff/70554

May Sterni’s resounding silence be the final expression of fortitude and faith necessary to usher in an era when all sorrow and weeping will be silenced forever with the arrival of Moshiach.

 

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