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Rabbis' Blog

Rock Bottom is not the End

Classics never get boring. Every time you reread a favorite book you discover a new detail in the story that changes your entire perspective. Of course this is true about the Torah and despite the fact that we learn the story of Exodus multiple times a year, one can still find something profoundly refreshing hiding in plain sight that changes everything.

Stuff happens and at times people get into situations where, as a result of their own bad choices, they find themselves in a very dark place - commonly known as “hitting rock bottom.” The unbearable feelings of pain, anguish and helplessness are overwhelming and one wonders “is there a way out for me?”

My intention today is not to analyze this problem from a psychological or clinical standpoint, but purely from a spiritual Torah angle: what does G-d tell us about hitting rock bottom?

Pharaoh and the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites for several generations and actively sought to eliminate them as well. They did horrible things, and months before the redemption, Pharaoh’s savage medical experts literally prescribed him a “blood bath” for his terrible skin ailment: to slaughter Jewish new-born baby boys and bathe in their blood. On every metric Pharaoh and the Egyptians had reached the “rock bottom” of immorality and depravity.

At this point Moshe returned to Egypt and delivered the famous message “Thus says G-d: Let my people go so they may serve me!” to which Pharaoh so arrogantly responded “Who is G-d?”

Pharaoh did not disobey G-d; he refused to acknowledge the existence of G-d. But while he refused to have a relationship with G-d, G-d wanted to have a relationship with him and his people. Instead of wiping them off the map and ridding the world of this menace instantaneously, a months-long process of strategic plagues followed, with the stated purpose that Pharaoh and the Egyptians should ultimately “know G-d.” Although the relationship would never be a loving and pleasant one - because they had sunken to such spiritual depths - it would be a relationship nonetheless, with purpose and meaning.

The plagues were not simply about revenge or punishment; they were about education and empowerment. To reveal the essential divine goodness that can be found even in the spiritual abyss of biblical Egypt.

This is not about excusing bad behavior or absolving bad people from suffering the consequences of their bad choices. It’s about appreciating the fact that everyone can and should have a relationship with G-d regardless of how low they have fallen.

If G-d did not give up on Pharaoh, we should never give up on ourselves or anyone else because hitting rock bottom is never the end.


Moshe, Maimonides and Me

Earlier this week I was speaking with a friend who listens to daily Torah classes by Rabbi Yehoshua Gordon obm on the weekly parshah. (They’re great! Check them out here.

He found it peculiar to be learning the story of the Jews in Egypt and the birth of Moshe when Passover was over three months away. Of course, the Torah reading cycle does not coincide with the Jewish festival calendar, but something special about today actually connects to this week’s parshah beautifully. Here’s how.

Today, (Friday the 20th of Teves) marks 817 years since the passing of Maimonides. His full name is Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon and he is most famously known in Judaism by the acronym of his name RaMBaM. While he lived over 2,500 years after the story of Exodus, his life shares so many parallels to it, which makes the fact we are commemorating his life today quite amazing.

Firstly, he shares the same name as the main protagonist and hero of the Passover story - Moshe, whose birth we learn about this week. Even more amazingly, Maimonides was born on the eve of Passover, literally hours before the Seder! At a young age his family was forced to flee for their lives from their hometown Cordoba, Spain - just like Moshe escaped from Pharaoh’s executioners - and he ended up settling in Egypt of all places.

Moshe spent considerable time in the Egyptian Royal Palace and Maimonides served as the personal physician and advisor to the Egyptian sultan.

But their strongest commonality is in their legacies. Moshe’s greatest contribution to Judaism and humanity is the Torah. As the prophet who communicated G-d’s laws to us he transcribed the Written Torah for posterity. However, most of the details remained an oral tradition passed down through the generations by tens of thousands of dedicated teachers and students. While the Mishna and Talmud became the first authoritative records of this tradition, they were never fully complete, nor easily understandable to the masses.

Maimonides codified and indexed the entire corpus of Jewish law in a systematic fashion, in language understood by the most basic Hebrew reader in his magnum opus entitled Mishneh Torah, which remains the only work of this scope to this day. The impact it continues to have on Judaism is so powerful that the epitaph inscribed on his tombstone in Tiberias reads “From Moshe until Moshe, there was none like Moshe.”

All this he accomplished while living a life of tremendous pain and hardship. Instead of surrendering to his trials and tribulations, he rose above them and focused on the task at hand to make the world a better place. His life and teachings continue to inspire millions around the globe.

I am privileged to study Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah every day and I invite you to join the global daily study movement which will uplift and inspire you. Learn more about it here.


Who Knows Eleven?

This week we hosted our third Kosher Food Club. Twice a month, teens from Coronado and Franklin High Schools come to Chabad during lunch break to eat, schmooze and do some Torah learning. I asked them if it was ever appropriate for a parent to show favoritism to one child over the others and an interesting discussion ensued. Like most things in life - it depends.

The child the doctor will be the most valued in medical situations and the child the lawyer will be front and center when legal issues come up. The same applies to the first Jewish family - Yaakov and his twelve sons. Although the favoritism Yaakov showed to Yosef over his other brothers had some tragic results, it’s justified when viewed from a spiritual perspective, and even became part of the lyrics of a Jewish song.

The classic Passover song Who Knows One? covers all the Jewish fundamentals in numbers. One G-d, two tablets, three patriarchs etc. For number eleven we declare “Eleven Stars!” referring to the episode of Yosef’s dreams that ultimately led to the gravest family feud in our history.

At age seventeen Yosef dreamed of the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing to him. When he shared the dream with his eleven brothers they were infuriated at the fact that he was insinuating they would all bow to him in submission and their anger led them to sell him off into slavery. Ultimately Yaakov and the brothers prostrated themselves to Yosef as viceroy of Egypt, but is this tragic story necessary to reference in a celebratory song about our foundational beliefs? After all, number twelve reminds us of all the twelve tribes. Must we emphasize the inferiority of the other eleven to Yosef?

While his brothers were saintly shepherds secluded from society, Yosef was thrust into the bowels of the most ethically deplorable nation at a very young age. Being a slave in Egypt was the worst evironment for being saintly, let alone stick to your morals and ethics. Even after he was appointed viceroy of Egypt the sheer weight of his duties and the public exposure was certainly not conducive to spiritual focus.

Nevertheless, he managed to remain the same saintly son of Yaakov as the rest of them, and even elevated the morality of Egypt - an accomplishment they couldn’t fathom. Even as a young lad Yaakov sensed Yosef’s spiritual superiority and tremendous potential and invested everything he had in the young prodigy, because the ultimate goal of the Abrahamic family was to bring the light of monotheism to the entire world. The other eleven were subordinate to Yosef because they needed to learn this important trait from him.

Specifically Yosef - not his father Yaakov or the rest of the brothers - promised the Jews they would ultimately be redeemed from Egypt and return to the Holy Land because he inspired all of us to be just like him. To engage with society with Jewish pride and purpose and influence humanity to make our world a better place, ushering in an era of redemption when true peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Coping With Trauma

Life can throw a lot at a person and there will always be the optimists and pessimists amongst us. Some will view every opportunity as a challenge and others will view every challenge as an opportunity. But there are scenarios that are objectively traumatic, where even the staunchest optimist will be crushed. Is there a Torah perspective on how to navigate these events?

In this week’s parsha we continue learning about the long and tortured narrative of Yosef and his brothers. Their relationship was complicated from the start and they eventually kidnapped him, sold him off into slavery when he was 17 years old and covered it up by staging his death.

During the span of their twenty two year separation Yosef was sold multiple times, brought down to Egypt, imprisoned on false charges and then elevated to the highest levels of global power -  charged with the responsibility of providing the entire region with food during a devastating famine. Despite his meteoric rise to power, the objective observer would conclude that Yosef’s experience was truly traumatic.

Back on the Land of Canaan, his brothers were filled with remorse for what they did and resolved to bring Yosef back at all costs. When they arrived in Egypt to purchase provisions for their father Yaakov and their families during the famine, Yosef set in motion a complex and multifaceted plan to ascertain whether they regretted selling him over two decades earlier. They passed the test with flying colors and Yosef knew the time was ripe to reveal his identity to them and set in motion the family reunion.

What are the first words you would say to someone who subjected you to unparalleled trauma?

Here is what Yosef said to them after revealing his true identity and seeing their understandable shock and deep shame: “Do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me before you. For already two years of famine have passed in the midst of the land, and for another five years, there will be neither plowing nor harvest. G-d sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land, and to preserve it for you for a great deliverance. You did not send me here, but G-d.”

Yosef did not demand an apology or explanation for their actions; neither did he allow them to express their remorse to him and work things through. He did not rewrite history and assure his brothers they did the right thing. His perspective did not absolve his brothers of wrongdoing, nor wipe away the personal pain he certainly experienced. But ill feelings, hatred, revenge or paralyzing trauma had no place in Yosef’s world, because he clearly understood that every problem “life threw at him” was really a divine mission.

Yosef was neither an optimist nor a pessimist. He was the ultimate realist. His mindfulness of the fact that everything happens according to a divine plan allowed him to survive the decades long ordeal mentally and emotionally unscathed.


When the unremarkable becomes epic

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. We all heard about that rule, but do we truly appreciate it?

Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil. Over 2,000 years ago in the Land of Israel, the heroic Maccabees revolted against the much larger Greek occupying force and won. Upon retaking the Holy Temple they sought to rededicate it by restoring the service of lighting the seven branched menorah. Alas, no ritually pure olive oil could be found. Miraculously they found a small jug of oil with the High Priest’s seal intact, hidden in the earth - a clear indication that it was still ritually pure.

There was only enough for one night and procuring new oil would take eight days. With profound trust in G-d they lit up the holy lamps, and by a wondrous miracle the one-day supply burned for eight days and nights. That’s how Chanukah came to be and each year we light candles for eight nights, play dreidel, eat latkes and retell the miracle of the oil.

We often dwell on the second part of the miracle - the fact that a one-day supply lasted eight days. But the first half of the miracle - the discovery of the oil - holds a tremendous lesson for us here and now.

The “miracle oil'' was not discovered in a golden flask hidden in a secure chest in the Temple’s vault. It was a clay jug buried in the ground, discovered by a sheer miracle. An objective observer would have concluded that this ugly, dirty clay jug containing barely a day’s worth of oil was hardly something to write home about. It turns out that the unremarkable jug became the catalyst for the most epic miracle in our history.

In this week’s parsha we learn about Yosef’s rise to power. He was a teenager when he was sold into slavery by his own brothers and then ended up in prison for ten years for a crime he never did. To the objective observer he was a lost case; a pathetic, dejected kid who would never accomplish anything.

In an amazing turn of events Yosef rose from prisoner-slave to viceroy of the world’s undisputed superpower and saved civilization from starvation. Yosef did not change overnight; his circumstances changed. Once given the opportunity to express his true colors he was able to change the world forever. He became a beacon of moral and ethical light for all people in his time.

Similar to the small amount of olive oil in the ugly clay jug of Chanukah. Once it was discovered and used for its intended purpose, it changed the world forever. Illustrating the superiority of light over darkness and good over evil.

We all have a tiny jug of pure olive oil inside of us. The organic drive to do what is right. The eternal flame of love for G-d and Judaism. It may be trapped under layers of negativity, apathy and assimilation, but it’s always there. Waiting to be discovered and enabled to unleash unlimited goodness and light to the world.

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