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Rabbis' Blog

Living the Paradox

Yesterday as I planned my weekly message I thought about the fact that many of my cousins, friends and even casual acquaintances remember my birthday. Often when I share that I was born on Lag B’Omer the response is an incredulous “Really? On the actual day?! Not a day earlier or a day later?” There is something unique about it that makes the fact I was born on that day so memorable to family and friends.

It’s an auspicious day because it marks the anniversary of the passing of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, a true Jewish hero, one of the greatest Talmudic masters and the father of Jewish mysticism. He specifically instructed that it be observed as a day of unbridled joy and celebration and for centuries the traditions of Lag B’Omer celebrations throughout the world, especially near Rabi Shimon’s gravesite in Meron, Israel have been the stuff of legends. In many ways it eclipses all the other traditional Jewish celebrations and its spiritual significance is tremendous.

I had the message all planned out when news broke that Israel’s worst-ever civil disaster was unfolding at the Lag B’Omer celebration in Meron. The scenes and stories of the tragedy are horrific and the pain and suffering of the over 100 injured and the dozens of families who lost their loved ones is absolutely terrifying.

If every tragedy is beyond our comprehension, the time and place of this specific catastrophe - ground zero of the historic Lag B’Omer celebrations - makes it much more jarring and difficult to grasp. The paradox is excruciatingly numbing.

The life of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai was a similar paradox. Living in the era immediately following the destruction of the Holy Temple, he experienced the worst exile had to offer. His beloved teacher Rabi Akiva was raked to death by the Roman occupiers and Rabi Shimon himself hid in a cave for 13 years because the local Roman governor had signed his death warrant and placed a bounty on his head.

Nevertheless our sages teach us that Rabi Shimon lived a life so connected to the divine that for him it was as if the Holy Temple had never been destroyed and his reality reflected that of the future redemption. Is it possible for a fugitive to live a life of ultimate freedom?

Rabi Shimon’s life revolved around Torah study. He served as a master teacher of its legalities - he is quoted in every chapter of the Talmud - while simultaneously developing and revealing its innermost dimensions - authoring the first authoritative Kabbalisitc work called the Zohar for posterity.

His complete immersion in Torah allowed him to process the world from the lens of Torah. Fully onscious of the religious oppression he and his coreligionists experienced at the time, his spirit remained unshackled and redemption was already a reality for him.

Today we are living through a tragic and painful paradox and I hope and pray that the merit of Rabi Shimon’s teachings pull us through this darkness as one united family. May we experience the final redemption through Moshiach when the world will be cleansed of all pain and suffering forever!

 

Can you resist such an offer?

“Will we walk around like zombies when Moshiach comes?”

This is a real question I was asked by an intelligent and successful individual. I’ve heard this same question articulated in various ways from many - even from religious Jews. I think it’s a great question.

The concept of Moshiach or Messiah has been around for thousands of years and unfortunately most people have no idea what it’s all about. The Bible records numerous prophecies foretelling of a future redemption, but a concrete understanding of what this is all about has eluded the masses for millennia, giving way to egregious misunderstandings resulting in controversy and tragedy.

Another thing many struggle with is the idea that Judaism calls our reality today “exile.” Living in an era of unprecedented religious, social and economic freedom and prosperity can we honestly relate to the idea that we are currently in exile?

The Hebrew language is awesome in that the definition of any given thing can be distilled from its name and an analysis of the Hebrew word for redemption in contrast to the word for exile properly defines redemption in a mature and truthful manner.

Here are the two words in Hebrew and English:

גולה - Exile - Golah

גאולה - Redemption - Geulah

Notice that both words are constructed from the same letters, in the identical sequence with one difference: the word for redemption has the letter “Alef” in it. Alef is the first letter of the Hebrew Alphabet and represents G-d. (Does “Who knows one?” sound familiar?)

So here is the deal with exile and redemption. Everything in this world and every moment of our lives has a divine purpose. But we do not experience the urgency and inevitability of fulfilling that divine purpose, because we do not sense G-d’s presence in every detail of our lives. In fact, choosing right over wrong can often be an excruciating struggle.

“Exile” is a reality in which the “Alef” - G-d is not revealed. Redemption means that G-d will be revealed in the reality so familiar to us. Moshiach will not take us back to the age of camel riding and candle light, nor will he transform us into zombies and lead us into an epic space voyage. Life will continue, but the struggle to be good and to do right will be no more, because our divine purpose and calling will be as perceivable and relatable as the air we breathe.

When all humanity experiences this, there will be no possibility for war, hatred, hunger or competition; an era of true peace and tranquility for all. We will have the best of both worlds: everything good about life today and none of the bad. Can you resist such an offer?

The second of the two Torah portions we read this week “Kedoshim” opens with an instruction for us all to be holy and enumerates dozens of Mitzvot, most of which deal with day-to-day life and not religious rituals. This illustrates that holiness is not about escaping reality, rather revealing divine purpose within reality. This is what redemption is all about.

We can choose to live like that today, even before Moshiach comes. By tuning our senses to G-d’s presence and choosing right over wrong more often than not, we experience our personal redemption and pave the way for global redemption as well.

 

 

We need to be on the same page

Imagine a company in which every single person involved is crystal clear on the company’s vision. From the CEO down to the courier everyone is on the same page and working towards the same exact goal.

Such an enterprise is destined for brilliant success.

3,333 years ago as the Israelites stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah, they became conscious of the ultimate goal of creation. Tradition teaches us that the divine revelation was so transformative that they were healed from any physical ailments and became immortal. The entire world was silent as G-d communicated the Ten Commandments and every detail of creation was consumed by the awareness of the creator.

That reality did not last very long and the world went back to regular soon afterwards. But the experience was important to give us an idea of what the purpose of Judaism really is: to prepare our world for a time that all illness, hunger, war and strife will cease and every detail of reality will be conscious of its purpose.

This is the underlying premise of everything in Judaism and G-d’s ultimate purpose in creation - a perfect world for all which will happen with the arrival of Moshiach.

This week we study two Torah portions Tazria and Metzora. The main theme of both portions is the mystical and miraculous condition known as “Tzara’at” which most translate as “leprosy.” It’s a terrible translation because in addition to being a skin condition it also applied to clothing, leather couches and stone walls. Clearly it has nothing to do with dermatology.

Maimonides explains that Tzara’at was a punishment for gossip and slander. First the walls of the house change color, then the leather implements change color, and even clothing. If one persists in their wickedness, their skin undergoes changes, which causes them to be isolated; a proper consequence for causing division and animosity between people as a result of their gossip.

Interestingly enough this entire discussion of Tzara’at was only practically relevant when there was a Holy Temple functioning in Jerusalem. Jewish mysticism explains that the condition was so miraculous that it was only manifest at a time when our reality was in sync with divine truth and today we are not conditioned to experience these types of spiritual phenomenons.

Tzara’at is about stopping people from speaking badly about each other and engendering peace and unity between us all. This ultimate unity will happen in the era of Moshiach, which is what Judaism has been aiming for from the very beginning. It’s crucial that we all have a better understanding and appreciation of how every detail of Judaism points in this direction, and most importantly, how this ultimate goal is not a pipe dream, rather a process unfolding right now in front of our eyes.

I invite you to join us for a special six week JLI course all about the imminent redemption. Classes will be held on Zoom on Tuesdays at 7:30pm-8:45pm. Please click here to learn more and to register.

Already registered? Invite a friend to discover Judaism’s mission statement and let’s all get on the same page in preparing our world for an era we all so desperately need now!

 

Mission not yet accomplished

The best part of any endeavor is the moment one can smile and say “mission accomplished.”

Several months after the redemption from Egypt our ancestors were given the mission to "make a Sanctuary for Me (G-d) so that I may dwell within them." Every detail of the awesome structure, its beautiful furniture and tapestries, down to its staff’s uniforms were dictated to Moshe with precision.

They were in a desolate wilderness, but upon receiving the divine instructions the Jews spared no efforts to procure the various - even exotic - materials needed and painstakingly prepared the Tabernacle G-d requested of them. Finally the structure was complete and ready for show time.

This week's parsha opens on the eighth day after Moshe had inaugurated the Tabernacle for seven days, offering the daily sacrifices and incense as prescribed.  But nothing happened. The divine presence did not permeate the structure and the people were devastated.

"We worked so hard to build the Tabernacle," they cried to Moshe. "Are we truly not worthy of being G-d's hosts?"

For them, the engineering and artistic achievement of constructing such a beautiful masterpiece in the desert was worthless unless the ultimate goal was accomplished - to merit G-d's revelation in their midst.

This Shabbat will be the 28th day of Nissan. Thirty years ago on this day, following evening services at Lubavitch World Headquarters, the Rebbe spoke to the assembled crowd for a brief 10 minutes.

After describing the spiritual auspiciousness of the day and how the next week would only increase this energy the Rebbe concluded with immense frustration that the fact that Messianic era had not yet arrived has no logical explanation. The fact that everyone was satisfied with and proud of Chabad's tremendous achievements over the last 40 years of the Rebbe's leadership was even more painful.

"How is it possible people are so complacent that Moshiach can possibly not arrive tonight?!" the Rebbe exclaimed.

What the Rebbe said next is too painful to transcribe so I will paraphrase.

Judaism sets forth a clear description of what the Messianic age will look like: An era of world peace, when all bickering and competition between people will cease. There will be no hunger, illness or strife in every corner of the globe and the setting will be right for all of the Torah's 613 commandments to be observed in their entirety. This dramatic transformation will be divinely engineered with the arrival of Moshiach, but it is specifically the Mitzvot that every individual does in the current era that will set the platform for this divine transformation to happen.

While everything that has been achieved until now might be remarkable, the mission has not been accomplished until Moshiach arrives and ushers in the Messianic era. “I have done all that I can do to make this happen,” the Rebbe concluded. “It’s now up to you all to do all that you can to make Moshiach actually come.”

We have our work set out for us and the marker for success is not negotiable. Every day needs to bring more Mitzvot and we need to work at it with the urgency of someone who's behind schedule on the project of their life. Until we merit to strike the final blow to this prolonged exile and usher in the era of redemption for all.

You will make it happen

It was a Sunday afternoon in October of 1991 and the Rebbe was standing in the foyer of Chabad World Headquarters distributing single dollar bills to the thousands who seeked to receive his blessing, advice or simply be in his presence for a few moments. Men, women and children of all stripes were lined up for hours as the Rebbe stood and greeted each one with a blessing and a dollar to be given to charity.

Mr. Gary Tuchman, a fresh new CNN correspondent was in Brooklyn that day with a camera crew to film a story for an upcoming international broadcast. He approached the Rebbe with the cameras running and asked, “Rebbe, what is your message to the world about the Messiah?”

WIthout hesitation the Rebbe responded, “It was already printed in all the press of all the countries: Moshiach is ready to come now, we all must only do something additional in the realm of goodness and kindness.”

“So people should be doing more goodness and kindness for him to come?” Gary followed up.

“At least a little more and then Moshiach will come immediately,” the Rebbe replied and then gave him and each member of his camera crew two double bills for a “double portion of kindness.” (Watch the interview here.)

Tonight begins the final festival days of Pesach known as Shvii Shel Pesach and Acharon Shel Pesach. Seven days after leaving Egyptian slavery the Israelites were chased by their former captors who wished to enslave them once more and were eventually trapped between them and the sea. Then G-d shocked the world with the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. Humanity stood in awe by this astounding display of divine power and the Jews were forever free from slavery.

The final day of Pesach celebrates the redemption to come. During synagogue services we read a chapter from Isaiah describing the arrival of Moshiach and what will look like at that time.

“The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the young goat… the cow and the bear will graze…”

Today it may seem impossible to happen, but the job description of Moshiach is to usher in an era where former enemies will be allies, competitors will compete no more, and the hunters and the hunted will live together in peace. A world in which “there will be neither famine or war, envy or competition for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d.”

Here is the catch. Whereas the first redemption from Egypt was solely dependent on G-d, the final redemption depends on us. And whereas the redemption from Egypt was a Jewish redemption, the final redemption will bring peace and tranquility to the entire universe. It follows that everyone needs to get involved in preparing our world for Moshiach.

The Rebbe distilled this reality succinctly in a soundbite tailor made for the world via CNN - “Add in goodness and kindness” - and then inspired the crew to do an act of giving by handing them each two dollars to give to those in need.

As Jews we prepare for Moshiach through increasing in Torah study and doing more Mitzvot, and we have the obligation and pleasure of involving all humanity in this crucial endeavor by inspiring everyone to increase in acts of goodness and kindness.

 

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