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Rabbis' Blog

Hereditary Liberty

On Wednesday evening I was stuck in heavy traffic for close to an hour on the I-10, which I believe was thankfully caused by construction and not an accident, and I couldn’t help feeling frustrated and annoyed by the delay. Inching forward on the freeway can feel very constraining, but as I listened to a recording of the Chassidic gathering the Rebbe held in honor of his 74th birthday (11 Nissan) days before Pesach 1976, I heard the Rebbe deliver a profound perspective on liberty that reframed even my silly nervousness as I sat in traffic.

On Pesach we celebrate liberty. Not a liberty we need to fight for and defend, but a liberty which is hereditary that we just need to tap into, develop and nurture. A liberty that was gifted to us by G-d and can never be taken away from us.

True liberty is freedom of the spirit, not the freedom of expression, movement or activity that can be largely dependent on external circumstances. For most of our history Jews lived under oppressive regimes but always remained inherently free. Even in Soviet Gulags and Nazi concentration camps, the spirit of faith, empathy and care for another managed to flourish because the spirit is always free.

To illustrate the distinction between external liberty and true liberty the Rebbe utilized a fresh story that was rocking the world media at the time.

A week earlier, on April 5, 1976 the world learned about the death of Howard Hughes, an American business magnate, investor and philanthropist, known during his lifetime as one of the most financially successful individuals in the world. His extreme paranoia and eccentric reclusiveness had driven him into hiding and at the time of his death he suffered from malnutrition and was covered in bedsores.

Here was a man who had the ability to do as he wished, yet in his personal life was more confined than an incarcerated prisoner. His freedom of expression, movement and activity was so severely hampered because he did not have the tools to tap into the liberty of the spirit.

My grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg languished in Stalin’s gulags for seven years but stubbornly subsisted on potato peels and sugar cubes for the eight days of Pesach so as not to eat Chometz during the festival. As a teenager in Auschwitz, Shainy’s grandmother, Mrs. Itu Lustig refused her morsel of bread the Nazis gave her on the night of Pesach. “It was my proudest moment in Auschwitz,” she told me with a smile a while back.

Pesach reminds us that we are always free. Even in silly situations like when you get nervous and upset because you are stuck in traffic and feel the minutes and hours of the day slipping from your control you have the choice to make that time meaningful in ways you hadn’t planned on.

As we clear away the Chometz to welcome in the Matzah let us focus on nurturing the spiritual liberty the Matzah represents and fill every moment of our time with bringing more goodness, kindness and inspiration to our world.

What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

That’s a tough question for me and I rarely answer the same answer twice. I know that sounds frighteningly stereotypical, but the message we can learn from this week’s additional Torah reading about the Jewish calendar and Passover - called Parshat Hachodesh - gives me some cover with this. Here’s why.

Two weeks before the Israelites were due to leave Egypt G-d prepared them for freedom by communicating the first batch of Mitzvot to them. First came the detailed instructions of setting up the Jewish calendar followed immediately by the laws of the Passover sacrifice known as the Pascal Lamb.

On the eve of exodus every family slaughtered a lamb, sprinkled the blood on the doorposts of their homes and ate the roasted meat together with Matzah and Maror in anticipation for the imminent redemption. For generations to come the Pascal Lamb would be sacrificed in the Holy Temple and serve as the centerpiece of every Seder table in Jerusalem in celebration of our exodus.

Initially the correlation between the two Mitzvot of the Jewish calendar and the Pascal Lamb seems technical: you can’t calculate the anniversary of exodus without a calendar. But like everything else in Torah there must be a deeper connection between the two and one detail of the Pascal Lamb ritual reveals something profound about the Jewish calendar.

While in Egypt most Israelites had become spiritually enslaved to the overwhelming influence of hedonistic Egyptian culture. The Kabbalists state that 210 years of immersion in the quagmire of Egyptian depravity brought our people to the brink of spiritual doom to the point that remaining there any longer would have been spiritually fatal.

The icon of Egyptian idolatry was the Lamb so G-d instructed the Israelites to disassociate themselves entirely from their heathen ways by slaughtering a lamb as an offering to G-d. But then came the specific instructions of how to prepare the lamb for consumption.

“You shall not eat it rare or boiled in water, except roasted over the fire, its head with its legs and with its innards.” (Exodus 12:9)

Notice the Torah does not simply instruct us to “roast the whole lamb.” It specifies the head, the innards and the legs to emphasize that while there is certainly a distinction between these body parts, when it comes to destroying idolatry and embracing Judaism, every detail is important and relevant.

This approach is true regarding the Jewish calendar as well. Certainly there is a distinction between days such as Shabbat, High Holy Days, Festivals, Rosh Chodesh and regular weekdays, just like there is a big difference between the lamb’s head, innards and feet. But every day must be observed and celebrated as a Jewish day in its unique way.

During the sixteenth century an imprisoned Jew was allowed to practice his religion together with the local community one day each year. He wondered which day to choose and was instructed by one of the great Halachic authorities of the time to utilize the first opportunity to do a Mitzvah that cannot be done in prison since one cannot determine the importance of Mitzvot.

The most important Jewish day is today.

With all that being said, I’m sure you have a favorite Jewish holiday and I’d love to hear about it. Please share your thoughts with me by responding in the comments.

I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Judaism doesn’t rely on market research

 

You are probably reading this message from an iPhone or a smartphone inspired by the iPhone. Finding someone with a “dumb” phone today is rare but I remember when the concept of every human being potentially purchasing and easily handling a hand held device with access to all the knowledge in the world was not even a fantasy.

When conceiving the idea of the smartphone Steve Jobs did not ask customers what they wanted. “People don't know what they want until you show it to them”, he famously said. “That's why I never rely on market research.”

While I’m sure quality research is positive, it’s the real transformative stuff that will never show up in those research results.

In this week’s parsha we learn about the sin of the Golden Calf. The tragic saga of our nation being manipulated into idol worship weeks after experiencing the greatest divine revelation at Sinai. The future of Judaism hung precariously in the balance until Moses heroically elicited G-d’s mercy for the people and then began the long process of atonement for their treachery.

The Torah narrative does not follow a chronological order and the Mitzvah of “Machatzis Hashekel” which served as one of the methods for atonement for the Golden Calf is recorded in the opening verses of the Parsha before the detailed description of that sordid episode.

Each year, every Jew is obligated to contribute a silver half shekel coin to a communal fund to pay for the daily communal sacrifices in the Holy Temple. There were no loopholes or exceptions and the courts were obligated to forcibly extract the half shekel coin from whoever refused to give it.

Moshe was confused by this clause. Seizing the half shekel would make sense if it was a tax, but the Torah defines this annual giving as an “atonement” and not a tax. How could the forced extraction of this donation achieve atonement for a Jew who doesn’t even want to give it?

In response, G-d showed Moshe “a fiery coin taken from beneath His Throne of Glory.” This divine fiery coin represented the essence of the “neshama” - the Jewish soul. G-d showed Moshe that even a Jew who is so spiritually insensitive as to dismiss the opportunity for atonement has a “neshama” in pristine condition. Just get the Mitzvah done and the soul will shine forth through the spiritual fog.

“Jewish market research” is completely unnecessary because there is no need to measure a Jew’s knowledge, commitment or inspiration before offering him or her to do a Mitzvah. Do everything in your power to get the deed done and the soul’s beautiful light and warmth will eventually shine forth with increasing intensity. Because even a simple coin, when used for a Mitzvah, can manifest the fiery passion inherent in every one of us.

 

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