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Rabbis' Blog

Miracles are not enough

 

“Rabbi, if G-d would split the sea in front of my eyes I’ll wrap Tefillin every day.”

That’s a real quote from a conversation I had several years ago. On the surface the argument seems sound. If the point of miraculous Bible stories is to prove that G-d is the Creator and still in control of the universe, why can’t I experience this today? Wouldn’t religious observance be more popular if we witnessed nature altering miracles everyday?

While I’m not in the business of winning arguments I found it worthwhile exploring the details of that story to gain perspective on living life Jewishly.

In this week’s parsha Beshalach the narrative of Exodus continues with G-d causing Pharaoh to regret driving the Israelites out of Egypt. Surprisingly Pharaoh managed to convince his traumatized nation to saddle up and chase after their former slaves who had caused them so much grief for ten months.

Barely a week after tasting freedom the Israelites were trapped between their sadistic oppressors and the raging sea with no escape route available. In one of the most amazing divine revelations to ever happen, G-d instructed Moshe to lift his staff over the sea causing the water to split, allowing the Israelites a dry and safe passage, while simultaneously crashing down on their enemies.

The event was so spectacular that in the special song of praise the Israelites sang that morning they declared “This is my G-d and I will exalt Him!” Every Jew literally saw G-d and rejoiced.

But then something strange happened. After journeying for 3 days without finding water they started complaining bitterly. Is it possible that after witnessing such divine miracles they were still capable of allowing their thirst to get in the way of their faith?

While every story in the Torah happened in a physical sense, there are multiple levels of commentary that make every word in Torah relevant at all times. The Talmud comments that a metaphorical reading of the verse teaches us that since the Israelites journeyed for 3 days without hearing Torah they became “weary in their faith” and therefore succumbed to complaining to G-d.

For this reason Jewish tradition mandates that we read the Torah publicly on Shabbat, Monday and Thursday so that 3 days do not pass without learning Torah.

This idea explains a lot about Jewish observance and why my friend’s challenge is a non-starter. True, miracles are important and impactful, but they are not transformative. Experiencing the Splitting of the Sea did not stop the Jews from complaining 3 days later, and if G-d would split the sea in front of us today I’m not convinced everyone would be observing all 613 commandments flawlessly. Because faith must be constantly nurtured day in and day out.

Studying Torah every day and doing Mitzvot with consistency is the only way to achieve a meaningful and lasting relationship with G-d.

The inaugural address of a new era

 

The inaugural address is an opportunity for the new president to share a message that will hopefully shape the imminent future and serve as an inspiration for generations to come. Although at times these speeches produced memorable quotes, rarely are they considered to be the dawn of a new era.

Seventy years ago, on the 10th day of Shevat 1951, exactly one year after the Previous Rebbe’s passing, the Rebbe led a Chassidic gathering in which it was believed he would formally accept the mantle of Chabad Lubavitch leadership. For many months, hundreds of Chassidim had petitioned him to assume the official title of “Lubavitcher Rebbe,” although he informally assumed most of the responsibilities of the position almost immediately.

The Chassidim were waiting for the Rebbe to deliver a “Maamer” - an original Chassidic discourse - which is the exclusive privilege and duty of the “Lubavitcher Rebbe.” On that Wednesday evening, the Rebbe delivered his inaugural discourse - called “Bosi Legani” - to the immense joy and relief of Chassidim around the world and changed the course of Jewish history.

Within a decade of the horrors of the Holocaust, as millions of Jews - including most of the Chabad community - remained trapped behind the iron curtain, the Rebbe spoke of a new era. Instead of issuing poetic and aspirational statements, the Rebbe gleaned from multiple sources in Talmud and Jewish mysticism to illustrate that the feasibility of fulfilling our mission to perfect the world, and the urgency to do so in our time, is a proven fact.

Whereas everyone in the room that evening had lost so much and felt so broken - the Rebbe announced that each and every one of them could change the world for good in ways their ancestors could not fathom. Whereas everyone else saw the physical destruction of our nation and the onslaught of assimilation - the Rebbe declared that specifically our generation would complete the historic task of perfecting our world with the arrival of Moshiach.

He spoke of Avraham the first Jew who dedicated his life to enlightening a heathen civilization with the light of monotheism. Avraham worked tirelessly to inspire others to become teachers of this truth as well, the Rebbe explained, and this remains the ultimate prototype for Jewish success to this day: if you want to be Jewish, you must share your Jewishness with others.

Most importantly, perfecting the world is our mandate and destiny not because of our superior talents or elevated spiritual status, but rather simply because we are alive today.

Amazingly there is a recording of that historic event and as I listened to it this evening the Rebbe’s words sounded more relevant today than ever before. We’ve come a long way since 1951, but the world is not yet perfect and the urgency to complete our mission only intensifies with time.

This Shabbat is the 10th of Shevat. As we celebrate 71 years of the Rebbe’s leadership and 70 years from his inaugural discourse, I encourage you to dedicate more time to studying Torah and to share your knowledge with others. Observe a new Mitzvah and encourage a friend to do the same. Increase your Tzedakah giving (before or after Shabbat) and inspire others to give as well. Because each act of kindness makes this world a better place and hastens the arrival of Moshiach when goodness, peace and freedom will abound for all.

 

 

What ten months can do

 

Remember when local schools announced they were closing for 2 weeks in March 2020 due to the mysterious novel Coronavirus? Many thought COVID would disrupt our lives for a very short time but here we are 10 months later with most local schools barely resuming in-person instruction and the future is anyone’s guess.

Imagine the school and business closures only lasted 2 weeks as initially announced, you can be sure we would have forgotten the virus ever existed by now, just like most people can’t tell you when the swine flu pandemic happened. But after 10 months of unprecedented global disruption, you can be sure the COVID era will be seared into the collective memory of humanity for a very long time.

In this week’s parsha Va’eira we learn about seven of the ten plagues G-d afflicted the Egyptians for enslaving the Jews. Many who are familiar with the story of Exodus don’t realize that more than ten months elapsed from when Moshe and Aharon first demanded Pharaoh let the people go until they actually left. Each plague was a one month procedure. For three weeks Moshe warned them of the impending plague and each one lasted a week.

Only after enduring miraculous harassment for close to a year, Pharaoh finally snapped and chased the Jews out of the land in mere hours, which presents the glaring question: Why could G-d not whisk the Jews out of Egypt within hours of Moshe arriving with the promise of redemption?

Imagine Jews in Auschwitz were told that G-d would first patiently afflict their oppressors for 10 months and only then take them out of the barbed wires. They would surely forgo seeing their murderous captors suffer and prefer to get out of there immediately. Why did the exodus from Egypt need to happen over such a long period of time?

The 10 plagues were not just a punishment for the Egyptians’ sadistic behavior. They were designed to disprove their heathen ideology and prove to them and to the rest of the world that G-d is in control of the universe. Had the Jews been whisked away from slavery in a matter of hours, days or even weeks, it would have been big news for a while but forgotten almost as quickly as it happened. Only because Egypt endured more than 10 months of divine harassment in such a public way did the knowledge of G-d’s omnipotence remain seared in humanity’s collective memory forever.

The COVID era is unique in the fact that people everywhere experienced its disruptions personally. But aside from the devastating pain, loss and financial ruin it wrought, it also revealed the deep reservoirs of perseverance and goodness we all possess. The outpouring of concern for neighbors, friends, community members and complete strangers is simultaneously astonishing and heartening. Many utilized the many extra hours suddenly available because of the closures to increase their Torah study and try out new Mitzvahs, discovering a new appreciation for their Judaism.

These past 10 months will reshape our lives and the world we live in for generations to come and it is up to us to choose which part of the experience will make its most indelible mark. Let’s ramp up the unique positivity we can generate specifically during this once-in-a-lifetime situation and ensure that we can be proud of this era’s lasting effects.

 

Just stretch out your hand

 

Last night a friend who runs an amazing organization for goodness reached out to me to vent his frustration. He’s talented, capable, energetic with some pretty amazing ideas floating around in his head but he simply can't break out of the routine of managing the organization to actually get them done.

He got me thinking about the infinite amount of amazing ideas that never happen simply because reality dictates we don’t have the time, money, headspace or emotional energy to succeed.

In this week’s parsha Shemos we learn how Pharaoh ordered all newborn Jewish baby boys cast in the Nile River. Despair engulfed the nation even at the pinnacle of its leadership, but the five year old Miriam prophesied to her father Amram that if he would not discourage his fellow Jews from having children, the next child born in their family would be the redeemer.

Moshe was born shortly afterwards but his survival hung in the balance as the Egyptians were tenaciously tracking down all the babies and drowning them. When she could hide him no longer, his mother converted a small basket into a floating device and set her newborn son adrift in the Nile River, hoping for the best.

Well aware that the future of Judaism hung in the balance as the destined redeemer floated aimlessly in the water, vulnerable and defenseless, Miriam hid at the riverbank to see what would happen to her brother.

Pharaoh’s daughter Batya came to the river to bathe and noticed the basket from afar. She intuited that it contained a baby in danger but was too far to rescue it on her own, and the basket and the baby kept drifting further and further away.

Batya had every reason to give up the rescue operation. Aside from the fact that she would surely incur her father’s wrath for disobeying his decree, physics dictated that she could not save the baby since the basket was too far away and there was no one she could summon to help. All her options were doomed for failure. Nevertheless, she stretched out her hand towards the basket and miraculously her arm stretched the enormous distance to reach the basket and when it contracted to its original size, she held the basket in her lap with the baby safe and sound. The future redeemer of Israel had been saved.

Simply put, the exodus only happened because Batya had the courage to stretch out her hand even when it made no sense.

The next time you feel compelled to do something good but the facts tell you it cannot be done - be like Batya and courageously stretch out your hand. Do all you can do in the proper direction and G-d will take care of the rest.

Most importantly please realize that the one Mitzvah you do today can be the one to tip the scales and bring redemption to the entire world when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Doesn’t make sense? Learn from Batya.

 

 

Driving through a snowstorm

 

This week my family did a quick getaway to Austin to spend time with cousins and after three enjoyable days packed into our van and headed west. Four hours into the drive it started snowing and by the time we reached the I-10 & I-20 Junction we found ourselves in standstill traffic. 

We reached a gas station four miles ahead after eight hours of slowly and carefully inching forward, until the freeway opened up a bit and we were able to continue our trip at a normal pace. Thank G-d we are all safe and sound and enjoyed our trip very much.

Inching forward in wee hours of Thursday morning I cannot describe to you how gratifying every yard forward felt. Slogging through one mile of snow and ice was a monumental accomplishment and felt infinitely better than covering 600 miles at 80 MPH.

This week’s parsha opens with the words “Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years.” After learning that his missing son Yosef was very much alive and the viceroy of Egypt, Yaakov moved there together with his entire family, ending the painful 22 year period of mourning and separation.

The opening word “Vayechi” which means “and he lived” also communicates to us that those 17 years in Egpyt were the best ones of Yaakov’s life.

Over 200 years ago, the Alter Rebbe (the founder of Chabad) was asked by his grandson, (who later became the third Rebbe of Chabad) how can one suggest that Yaakov’s best years were spent in Egypt, the epicenter of moral depravity and corruption? While they were certainly peaceful years, the geographical location of Egypt represents the exact opposite of what Yaakov stood for. 

The Hebrew name for Egypt “Mitzrayim” is etymologically linked to the Hebrew word for limitations and boundaries. Yaakov was the third link in the glorious legacy of Avraham, the first Jew, who promoted G-dliness to a heathen civilization; an ideology that transcends all the limitations and boundaries of the physical and material world. How could Yaakov thrive in the “Mitzrayim” environment more than he did in the Holy Land, to the point that his best years of life were in Egypt?

The Alter Rebbe answered that before Yaakov arrived he established a Yeshiva and his descendants continued studying Torah even while living in Egypt. While Torah study in the Holy Land is like cruising down the I-10 at 80 MPH, continuing to study Torah in the challenging and limiting environment of Egypt is like inching through a mile in standstill traffic during a snowstorm: the achievement is incomparable.

That’s why Yaakov lived it up specifically in Egypt and we learn from him that while we certainly don’t seek out challenges, overcoming them provides the context for us to thrive with even greater capacity.

I get the feeling that most of us experienced 2020 like slogging through a few miles in a snowstorm. It was certainly a challenging year, but let’s focus on the things we did manage to do despite all of this and look back at this time with a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

 

 

 

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