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Rabbis' Blog

Light is Essential

Hugo Gryn was a teenager when the Nazis invaded his Ukrainian hometown, rounded up the Jews and deported them to Auschwitz. On the night of Chanukah, as Hugo shivered in their barracks he saw his father pull out a small tin cup with a small lick of butter at the bottom of it. He pulled a thread from his camp uniform, inserted it into the butter and proceeded to light it while reciting the Chanukah blessings under his breath.

Hugo was outraged. Not because his father was endangering his life by lighting the Chanukah candles, an offense for which he could be shot on the spot. He found it simply impractical and asked his father how he could possibly waste a lick of butter that could provide much needed nutrition for their bodies, by lighting it for Chanukah for just a few minutes.

His father looked him in the eye and said. “Hugo, if Auschwitz taught us anything, it is that our person can live for days without food but he cannot live for one moment without light.”

This week’s parsha opens with the sorrowful news of Sarah’s passing. The brave woman who partnered with Avraham in bringing awareness of G-d to a heathen and often hostile world was mourned by all, but no one felt the loss more acutely than her only son Yitzchok. The narrative continues with the dramatic story of how Avraham’s servant Eliezer searched for a suitable wife for Yitzchok and miraculously found the kind and generous Rivka.

Upon his marriage to Rivka, Yitzchok was finally consoled for the loss of his mother and Rashi’s interpretation communicates that his consolation was because she was exactly like his mother Sarah.

Three miracles happened during Sarah’s lifetime. Her dough was blessed that there was always plenty to feed and satisfy the many guests who frequented their home; a divine cloud hovered above her tent; the Shabbat candles she lit on Friday afternoon miraculously burned throughout the week until the next Friday. All three miracles ceased when Sarah passed away and returned when Rivka arrived.

As our matriarchs, these miracles serve as a guide and inspiration for us today.

While the miracles of dough and divine cloud represent the human essentials of food and shelter, what could be the purpose of the Shabbat candles burning all week long?

Sarah and Rivka teach us that while food and shelter may guarantee survival, light is essential for living. Physical light allows us to find our way in the world and interact with others pleasantly, and the spiritual light of Torah clarifies what life is all about. To live life with dedication to a purpose higher than ourselves and serve as shining examples for everyone around us.

By lighting Shabbat candles each Friday at the appropriate time and reciting the blessing, we welcome the eternal light of our matriarchs into every facet of our lives. Long after the physical flame disappears, the message of light lingers throughout the week, inspiring us to add in goodness and kindness, preparing our world for the imminent arrival of Moshiach, when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Higher Than Self

Perhaps the most famous quote from a presidential inauguration is JFK’s historic “Ask not what your country could do for you - ask what you can do for your country.” A call to service, action, and dedication to a purpose higher than self.

The opening story of this week’s parsha happens three days after Avraham entered a covenant with G-d through circumcision. At the advanced age of ninety-nine, G-d communicated to him the mitzvah of Bris Milah, which he observed without hesitation.

Following such a procedure it’s only natural to feel weak and ill, and the third day is the worst of all. G-d arranged for scorching weather to keep travelers off the road and away from Avraham’s hospitality tent, so he could rest and recuperate from the circumcision. 

But hospitality wasn’t just Avraham’s day job - it was a Mitzvah and his life mission. His greatest joy and pleasure was to welcome in weary travelers, seat them in the shade of his beautiful orchard and serve them the choicest delicacies. It was all done for free with the sole purpose of inspiring them to thank the creator of all things, Al-mighty G-d, for the food they ate and thus bringing the awareness of divine truth to a heathen world.

Instead of resting in bed as his hotel remained empty due to the unbearable heat, Avraham sat at the entrance of his tent on the lookout for some brave travelers to express his unbridled kindness. In this setting the Torah states “the L-rd appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot.”

G-d observes all the Mitzvot, so G-d visited Avraham - who was ill due to the circumcision - in observance of the Mitzvah of “Bikkur Cholim” - visiting the sick.

One can imagine what type of spiritual bliss such a revelation must have been for Avraham, but, shockingly, he never took his eyes off the road. Even while experiencing such an intense divine revelation he noticed three travelers approaching from a distance. He excused himself from G-d’s presence, ran to them and insisted they enter his tent to avail themselves of his hospitality.

Although these three men were really angels, they were disguised as heathens who served the dust of their feet as deities; the most pathetic of society at the time. Nevertheless, Avraham tore himself away from an unprecedented divine revelation to express kindness to the scourge of humanity in keeping with his life mission.

This is what a covenant with G-d is all about. The ability to rise above our own needs and desires - even if they may be of the most elevated spiritual nature - to do what is expected of us in making our world a better place for all. Be like Avraham and never allow anything to stand in the way of a Mitzvah that needs to be done now.

Control Your Situation

Several weeks ago I was dining in the Sukkah with friends when one of them shared that he reads Torah teachings from the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks every week. As the conversation continued, I shared with them a story I heard from Rabbi Sacks at the International Chabad Conference over ten years ago. (Watch it here: chabadelpaso.com/1690783)

As a college student at Cambridge in the 1960s he traveled to the US during his summer break to meet with influential Jewish leaders at the time, including the Rebbe. After he concluded presenting his important questions during that late-night meeting, the Rebbe started asking him questions.

“What are you doing to enhance Jewish life at Cambridge?”

The young Sacks was astonished, as at the time he was not exactly the prototype of a traditional Jewish activist and he tried to politely extricate himself from the question.

“In the situation in which I find myself in…”

The Rebbe stopped him mid-sentence and said, “Noone finds themselves in a situation. You put yourself into a situation. And if you put yourself in one situation you can put yourself in another situation.”

“That moment changed my life,” said Rabbi Sacks at the convention 50 years later. The rest is history.

This week’s parsha opens with the first recorded communication between G-d and Avraham the first Jew. “Go forth from your land, your birthplace and your father’s home, and travel to the land I will show you.”

Here are a few questions on this seemingly simple instruction. Why are there so many adjectives to describe the place he was moving away from? Why does G-d not tell Avraham his destination? Most importantly, why is this the first recorded communication between G-d and the man who initiated the most important monotheistic revolution in history?

The key to being G-d’s ambassador to bring more goodness and light to the world is to realize that you are in control of your situation. Regardless of your nature, habits or familial attitudes, you can elevate yourself from it all and devote yourself to G-d’s cause; a cause greater than yourself. And when you do so, your destination will be something far greater than you can ever imagine right now. You will accomplish things you could have never dreamed of.

All it takes is to make the move. Commit yourself to a new mitzvah, set aside time to learn more Torah and follow the inspiration as it elevates you, your family and everyone around you to  a better and more wholesome place.

You’re not as lonely as it may seem

Being the good kid in a class of rowdy students can be demoralizing, depressing and lonesome. Trying to focus on excelling academically while everyone around you is having a good time is not a good recipe to thrive socially, but eventually pays off down the line.

The opening verse of this week’s parsha gives the following introduction of Noach. “Noach was a righteous and perfect man - in his generation.” In addition to calling Noach a good guy, the Torah makes note that despite the fact his generation was so appallingly corrupt, he managed to remain righteous. Why is it so important for the Torah to emphasize how lonely Noach was in his morality?

When G-d decided to destroy the world and save only Noach’s family and representatives of each animal species, He gave him 120 years to build a massive ark according to divine instruction. There was no Home Depot to purchase supplies from, nor a massive hangar in which he could build his boat-house in relative privacy. Every step of the process, from planting trees for lumber to actually constructing the unprecedented monstrosity happened in full view of the people around him and news of it reached everyone alive at the time.

He explained to them that the destruction of the world was imminent because of their behavior, and by improving themselves G-d’s decree could be averted, but they were beyond all hope of rehabilitation that all his warnings fell on deaf ears. No one took him seriously and his isolation only intensified.

Other than his three sons, Noach had no companionship at all. Nevertheless he persisted and the world was rebuilt after the devastation of the flood because of his courage and faith.

Noach’s loneliness serves as an empowering lesson for us today.

Often, doing the right thing can feel lonely. Eating Kosher food from takeout containers while everyone else at the conference dines on real china and cutlery; standing in a packed airport terminal wrapped in a Tallit and Tefillin reciting prayers for several minutes, or electing to skip an important sports game together with friends because it’s happening on Friday night. I’m sure you can find many other examples of how a Jew can feel lonely in a crowd, but Noach teaches us how to courageously swim against the current and be confident in the advantage of doing the right thing, even if it's unpopular. 

Unlike Noach who truly stuck out as one singular sore thumb amongst all his peers, a Jew is never truly lonely. We are part of a community of millions and the latest link in a glorious chain of many generations that did the same. We are certainly the minority, but when it comes to doing the right thing, numbers never matter.

On the contrary. Just as Noach weathered the storm of social isolation to preside over a new and refreshed world, the time is imminent when the light of Torah will inspire all humanity to live in true peace and tranquility with the arrival of Moshiach.


Drinking Water Can Change Your Life

During Sukkot a friend came over to shake the Lulav and Etrog and have a quick nosh in our Sukkah. After shaking the Lulav we made the blessing on a delicious muffin and the blessing for dining in the Sukkah. As we concluded the blessing before drinking water he asked, “Which Hebrew word in that blessing means water?”

It was an excellent question because most other blessings recited before eating foods or doing Mitzvot clearly specify the food or Mitzvah at hand.

“None of them,” I replied.

“So what does the blessing mean?”

“Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, by whose word all things came to be.”

While translating I was reminded how meaningful this blessing really is and how it can be the key to true happiness and fulfillment.

While every other blessing we recite focuses on the action at hand, whether it’s a Mitzvah we are doing or the food we are eating, the blessing before drinking beverages (aside for wine),as well as meat, fish, eggs and other basic staples is not even limited to food or drink. It encompasses the entire universe. Quenching your thirst with a glass of water suddenly becomes a global issue!

In the first parsha of the Torah “Bereishis” we learn how G-d created the universe through His speech. “G-d said ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)

It seems perplexing that the Torah, our Book of Law, begins with the narrative of creation. What bearing does the origins of the world have on my behavior?

Here is the deal. Torah not only teaches us how to behave, it provides a clear context in which we can appreciate the relevance of our behavior. Knowing that G-d created the entire universe reminds us that our every positive action positively impacts the entire world because it was created specifically for that purpose. Squandering those opportunities has the opposite effect.

While drinking water is crucial to survival, reciting the proper blessing beforehand and absorbing its message is crucial to living life fully and meaningfully. Being constantly aware that all things came to be through G-d’s word reminds us that life is not random and we are never alone or irrelevant.

So the next time you are nervous before an important meeting, feel stage fright, hear terrible news or the best news ever and reach for a glass of water or any other beverage (aside for wine), stop for a moment and recite, in Hebrew or in English:

Baruch atah A-donay, Elo-heinu Melech Ha’Olam shehakol nihiyah bed'varo.

Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the universe, by Whose word all things came to be.

It can change your life.



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