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Rabbis' Blog

Light will always be conspicuous

Anti-Semitism. Unfortunately we all know what it is and yet seem surprised every time it rears its ugly head. The past few weeks there has been increased chatter about anti-Semitism due to an uptick of anti-Semitic incidents, allegedly in connection with the recent events in Israel. 

Don’t allow the noise to convince you that anti-Semitism is rational or that its recent increase is a reaction to something specific. Ever since Abraham started doing his thing about 4,000 years ago, the hatred to his message and family has been an ever present cancer in society.

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where the overwhelming majority of civilized people reject and condemn anti-Semitism - for which I am grateful. But the problem still persists and the question is how do we respond as Jews.

In January 2020 Menachem Wecker, an author at Religion News Service, was working on an article entitled “Amid rising anti-Semitism, Orthodox Jews weigh safety with being conspicuously Jewish” and wanted to hear from someone who really stands out as a minority: How does it feel to be one of two conspicuously dressed Chassdic Jews living in a city of 800,000?

I was happy to share that I always feel safe here in town and my conspicuous Jewish garb earns me nothing but respect. In fact, the occasional curiosity about my clothing affords me the opportunity to share a message that will resonate and inspire.

In this week’s parsha Beha’alolsecha we learn about the daily kindling of the Menorah in the Holy Temple. When the Tabernacle was inaugurated in the desert, Aharon the High Priest was upset that he was excluded from the inauguration of the altar, done by the other leaders of the twelve tribes. G-d promised Aharon that the flames of the Menorah, that only his tribe would kindle, would remain a symbol of Jewish identity and continuity for all time.

Today the Menorah remains a ubiquitous symbol of Judaism and the flame is an icon of the Jewish soul.

The job of a flame is to illuminate, to inspire and bring warmth. A flame needs to be in the open to fulfill its role and is no good when it’s hiding. That's why Judaism makes us Jews so easily identifiable, because we have a crucial role to play in the world.

Our visibility makes us a beacon - not a target.

While I am painfully aware that many Jews suffer from anti-Semitism, trying to hide our Jewishness won’t help. It will only make things worse. We must embrace our role in the world and wear our identity proudly for all to see.

The only practical response to the menace of anti-Semitism is to be even more openly Jewish than before, because eventually the light of our personal and collective Menorah will illuminate the entire world with the imminent arrival of Moshiach, when there will be peace and tranquility for all.

 

Beyond the professionalism

A Jew once wrote to the Rebbe “Although I am of Chassidic pedigree I am not a professional chassid.” In response the Rebbe explained that there is no such thing as a “professional chassid.”

“One who views the function of a chassid as a profession missed the entire point of the Chassidic lifestyle and philosophy, which is the inspiration of the mind and the passion of the heart.”

This week’s parsha Naso holds the distinction of being the single longest Torah portion, clocking in a whopping 176 verses. Equally amazing and actually perplexing is the fact that 71 of these verses are sets of six almost identical verses.

A year after leaving Egypt the Jewish people built a Tabernacle in the desert to serve as a dwelling for G-d in their midst. When it was inaugurated on the first day of Nissan the leaders of the twelve tribes presented special sacrifices to inaugurate the altar on twelve separate days.

All twelve leaders offered the identical, precise formula of sacrifices. The same number of cows, sheep, rams and goats. Even the weight of the silver bowls containing the flour for meal offerings and the incense were uniform. All twelve paragraphs describing the sacrifices are essentially copy and paste aside for the days and names of the tribes and their leaders. Why not record the formula once and conclude that each respective leader offered the same sacrifices on their respective day?

The question becomes more acute in light of the fact that thousands of laws regarding Mitzvot that are relevant to us on a constant basis are barely mentioned in the Torah, and here the Torah records a one-time event with monotonous and unnecessary repetition!

Our sages explain that while the leaders offered the exact same sacrifices, the intentions and prayers that accompanied the sacrifices were vastly different. Each one focused on a theme most relevant to their tribe. Recording the formula once and concluding that the others did exactly the same would be a lie. Because each day’s sacrifice was really “different.”

Someone once asked Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz if reciting the same prayers every day gets boring. He remarked that while the words are the same, the person reciting them is different every day. “And if you’re the same today as you were yesterday, then you are boring.”

The lengthy record of the inauguration of the altar 3,332 years ago teaches us that while Torah study, Mitzvah observance and prayer have a defined formula - this is not one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter religiosity. When we engage our minds and hearts in the Mitzvot we do and the prayers we recite they become truly personal - worthy of being recorded in the story of life as your unique contribution to making our world a better place.

Judaism must be professional - executed precisely and properly - yet dynamic and personal with our personal passion and devotion.

There is something we all can do

This week was terrifying because I was getting reports of the violence on the streets and the rockets raining down on Israel directly from friends and family and in real time. Not through tweets, media reports or celebrity newscasters. From thousands of miles away I watched family members living in all parts of Israel rush their kids to bomb shelters multiple times in the middle of the night.

Heard about the lynchings going on? Here is a story I heard from the victim which was not reported in the media, because of its happy ending.

I’m on a WhatsApp group with a friend living in Afula, Israel. Each week he encourages dozens of Jews to wrap Tefillin and his weekly posts are quite inspiring.

On Tuesday night he posted to the group that while driving that evening his car was suddenly surrounded by rioting Arabs throwing stones and shouting at him. They managed to open his car door, but he miraculously kept his cool, pressed the gas pedal hard and managed to escape the inevitable lynch. His car windows were smashed and he had cuts and bruises but by a clear miracle he escaped safe and sound. Seeing the photos he posted was very hard for me, and while thankful that he was alright I couldn’t help imagining how traumatic the experience was for him.

Every day I study the Rebbe’s letters and am currently studying the letters from the summer of 1967. In the weeks preceding the Six Day War, as the entire Jewish world trembled from the impending Arab attack, the Rebbe launched a massive campaign to encourage every Jewish male over the age of 13 to wrap Tefillin. Every Mitzvah has a unique quality and Tefillin is the key to Jewish security, the Rebbe explained. (Learn more about this here.)

On Tuesday night I was amazed to providentially read a letter the Rebbe sent to the Afula chief of police thanking him for sharing the good news about the Tefillin campaign in Afula! The Rebbe continues to explain how Tefillin provides much needed spiritual and physical security for all Israel.

I sent a photo of the letter to my friend in Afula and he responded that indeed, as he miraculously managed to escape the lynch, he was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that his passion for inspiring Jews to wrap Tefillin every week certainly played a role in his miracle.

In a few days we will celebrate Shavuot: 3,333 years from the revelation at Sinai. It was an event that transformed us from twelve Abrahamic tribes into a Jewish nation, that each and every individual Jew is personally responsible and interconnected with each other. Just like the health of every organ of the body is relevant to all the other organs, one Jew’s Mitzvah affects all Jews wherever they may be.

I hope and pray that the worst has passed for the Jews in Israel and they will have only peace and tranquility from now on, but clearly there is something that all of us can and should be doing for them. So here are some ideas:

Men over 13 years should wrap Tefillin on weekdays. It would be my pleasure to help you do this Mitzvah. Please reach out to schedule a time to meet and I’ll guide you through this special Mitzvah. Now might be a good time to purchase your own pair, or to have your Tefillin checked to ensure it’s still kosher. Let’s arm up with Tefillin and help our brothers and sisters in the IDF protect Israel!

Women and girls of all ages should light Shabbat and festival candles at the proper time. In the next few days we have extra opportunities to brighten up the world: this Friday evening at 7:38pm (read instructions and blessings here), Sunday evening for Shavuot at 7:39pm and on Monday evening please light the candles from a pre-existent flame after 8:38pm (read instructions and blessings here). May the light of the Shabbat and festival flames outshine and neutralize the flashing brightness seen this week over Israel’s nighttime skies from Hamas’s rockets and Israel’s Iron Dome. May it never need to be used again!

Millions of Israelis needed to hunker down in bomb shelters and safe rooms this week. Let’s beef up our home security by ensuring that we have proper Mezuzahs on all the doors of our homes. Have yours been checked in the past few years to ensure they retain their kosherness? Are you sure there is a proper scroll in the Mezuzah case? Do you need to purchase more Mezuzahs for more doors in your home? It will be my pleasure to help you with all your Mezuzah needs. Please reach out!

May all our collective Mitzvot immediately usher in the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all humanity.

 

 

 

Shavuot, Torah and Science: Interview with Dr. Alexander Friedman

 Alexander Friedman.jpg

Dr. Alexander Friedman earned his doctoral degree in brain physiology from Bar-llan University (BIU) in Israel and joined UTEP last year after completing his postdoctoral training and working as a research scientist at MIT for 10 years. He also authored three major publications in the Cell journal and two major publications in the PNAS journal.

 
Dr. Friedman moved to El Paso in August 2020 together with his wife Miriam and their children Raizy (5) and Itzik (3). A chassidic scholar and graduate of the prestigious Chabad Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, Israel Dr. Friedman combines a unique passion for Torah and the exact sciences.

The following interview was published in the El Paso Chabad Times in honor of Shavuot.

Chabad Times: What led you to become a scientist?

Dr. Alexander Friedaman: I was born to a family of scientists in the former Soviet Union. My grandfather Dr. Olodovsky was a prestigious physicist and both my grandmothers were science professors. It was a profession many Jews preferred since it was possible to observe Shabbat with minimal hassle.

Providing a proper Jewish education in the USSR was very difficult but my parents did their best under the circumstances. I was always attracted to the sciences and after applying to several universities I was accepted to Machon Lev in Jerusalem which led me to make Aliyah to Israel.

Machon Lev combines a university education and a Yeshiva education and while earning my B.A. I caught up on my Judaic studies as well. I was introduced to Chassidic philosophy by Dr. Yaakov Friedman, a great scientist in his own right, and I decided to spend a gap year pursuing more intense Torah study at the main Chabad Yeshiva in Israel. After a year I wanted to continue full time, but Rabbi Zalman Gopin, the chief Chassidic mentor at the Yeshivah insisted that I earn my doctorate.

I enrolled in Bar-Ilan University which is a half hour drive away from the Yeshiva and divided my day between the Yeshiva and the university.

CT: Is it possible to balance these two seemingly opposite studies?

AF: I admit they were very long and grueling days, but they were stimulating and rewarding. Rabbi Gopin explained to me that although learning Torah full time is a privilege, with my background and education it was crucial for me to excel in science to discover and illustrate how it all blends beautifully with Torah teachings and observance. It’s not the typical route for a Yeshiva student, but everyone has their journey and purpose in life. Being simultaneously submerged in both worlds was a unique experience that shaped my life work ever since.

CT: Please explain how your scientific research enhances your appreciation of Judaism and vice versa.

AF: The definition of science is discovering the principles of the organization of the universe. When studying physics, chemistry and biology you discover how complex yet astoundingly exact nature really is. Obviously none of this could happen randomly and it was certainly created by a superpower.

My field of research is brain physiology and, let me tell you, even the brain of a mouse is extremely complex. The tremendous discoveries we make in their brains help us understand the human brain which is far more sophisticated. To date we understand precious little about the nerve center of our body, yet we take for granted that there are billions of these in the world. Multiply this by trillions of other organisms, minerals and particles and you have yourself an awesome universe created and maintained by an awesome creator.

5,781 years ago, when Adam the first human being was created on the day we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, he intuitively realized this and called out to creation to acknowledge G-d’s sovereignty. That’s why the High Holy Days liturgy is packed with these ideas and it’s the core of what Judaism is all about.

Soon we will celebrate Shavuot; 3,333 years since G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish nation at Mt. Sinai. Fascinatingly, this only happened after Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who was also the greatest scientist and philosopher at the time recognized that G-d is the supreme power of the universe.

When the Jews stood at Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments from G-d, all humanity realized with brilliant clarity - albeit temporarily - that all of nature is truly a reflection of G-d. This was preceded by Jethro’s conversion to Judaism to illustrate how this clarity must come from within nature itself. The more we know about nature the more we know G-d.

Since then the world is progressing in its scientific knowledge and its appreciation for and knowledge of G-d so that the Sinai experience becomes a permanent reality. This is the definition of the Messianic Era; that every created being will recognize the creator. Not only Jews - everyone!

CT: Have you found this attitude in modern science as well?

AF: Certainly. Sir Isaac Newton defined scientific experiments as our way of asking G-d how to do things. In my opinion he continues to be the most important scientist of the modern era and I find it fascinating that the overwhelming majority of his works were translations of Torah scholarship. Ivan Pavlov, the father of brain physiology and the legendary chemist Dmitri Mendeleev were both deeply religious and their religious convictions impacted their scientific work.

Faith does not hamper scientific discovery. It enhances it, just like it enhances every detail of life.

CT: Do you feel this idea can be experienced by everyone?

AF: Look, such an attitude needs to be nurtured. I study Chassidic philosophy daily to keep this perspective fresh and relatable. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to appreciate how complex and awesome our world is, but to experience life in a way that allows you to discover the divine element in everything and to introduce peace and serenity into every detail of life - it’s crucial to study Chassidic philosophy.

The good news is that there is so much available in multiple languages in so many formats and platforms and it’s very convenient to learn it nowadays. Clearly this is another sign of the imminence of the Messianic era when, as Maimonides writes, the knowledge of G-d will fill  the entire world and there will be global peace and tranquility for all.

 

When the teacher stays for detention

On a recent flight I was reminded of the famous observation that when choosing a surgeon, even for a routine surgery, one will investigate credentials and reputation, but we barely take notice of the pilot when boarding a plane, let alone investigate whether he really knows how to fly the big bird.

The reason is simple; the pilot is flying in the plane together with us and if he’s confident enough to occupy the cockpit, I’m fine relaxing in economy with a book. The surgeon, on the other hand, will go home to his family even if the surgery is not a slam dunk more investigation is appropriate.

Let’s analyze two similar scenarios regarding detention after school hours.

Jimmy disrupted class and was punished with one hour of detention after school. He’s really upset because he would miss out on the first few innings of the junior league softball game. Seeing his teacher exit the school building and drive away makes him even more upset because, in his childish mind, he feels it unfair that the teacher who caused him to miss out on his after-school plans did not get her after-school plans disrupted.

Here’s the alternative scenario: there is no official detention room at the school and Jimmy’s teacher needs to stay in the classroom with him for an hour so he could suffer the consequences of disrupting class. While missing the first innings of the softball game is still very upsetting, the fact that the teacher stayed behind as well makes Jimmy feel slightly differently about it.

This week’s parsha Bechukosai deals with the fundamental Jewish belief of reward and punishment. The idea is simple: if we observe the Torah and Mitzvot G-d will grant us health, wealth and peace. If not, there is a laundry list of horrifying curses that will befall the Jewish people as a consequence for violating the divine covenant. But after 30 verses of curses, culminating with the curse of exile, the Torah concludes with the following:

“Despite all this, while they are in their enemies’ land, I will not be revolted by them nor will I reject them to obliterate them.” (Leviticus 26:44)

When we are in exile, G-d is in exile together with us. When we experience misfortune, tragedy and calamity, G-d experiences the pain and suffering together with us. Even when we are sullied with sin and project an odor of egocentrism, self centeredness and corruption, G-d still cherishes us unconditionally and never leaves us. We might be in detention, missing out on some amazing spiritual stuff, but G-d is in detention together with us and supports us in cleaning up our mess.

This is tremendously empowering and should inspire us to learn more Torah and do even more Mitzvot despite the challenges of exile, thereby preparing ourselves and the world for the imminent redemption when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

 

 

 

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