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Rabbis' Blog

Dealing With Irrationality

All eyes are on Surfside, Florida. The horror that unfolded Wednesday night when a large portion of a beachside condominium building suddenly collapsed is unfathomable. 

On Thursday, Wolf Blitzer from CNN asked Rabbi Shalom Lipskar, Chabad rabbi in Bal Harbor on live television: “As a man of faith, how do you try to understand and explain something as horrific as this?”

“You can’t explain it, so let’s start from there,” Rabbi Lipskar answered. “There is no rationality for it…”

The rabbi described the situation as a surreal space with hundreds of people waiting for “the ultimate judgement” of life and death of their loved ones. “There is hope in the air, but it’s a strange kind of feeling.”

Perhaps the strangeness of the situation is partly due to the fact we don’t yet know if it was the result of bad actors or malicious intent. The victims did not intentionally walk into danger nor was there anything they could have done to protect themselves. I doubt the findings of a thorough investigation will inform us regular people how to be safer in the future and there is probably no known enemy to confront and stop from doing such things again.

While hundreds of rescue workers and local volunteers work around the clock to save lives and support the survivors and relatives, there is just confusion and sadness for the rest of us. Is there a way we can process this so that we are not paralyzed by fear of the unknown?

This week’s parsha records the story of how two evil anti-Semites sought to destroy the Jewish nation. Balak king of Moav hired the gentile prophet Bilaam to annihilate the Jews with a curse. Bilaam’s curses had destroyed mighty nations before and he was delighted to focus his deadly power on the people he hated most.

This was the only time the Jews were in mortal danger without knowing it. All other enemies confronted us directly and we dealt with them either through negotiations, battle or by praying for a miracle. But this time the Jews were oblivious to the problem and unaware of the great miracles that saved them.

This story teaches us there's alot going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about. Much more than we can control and manipulate on our own. Trust in G-d - known in Hebrew as bitachon - means realizing that even when we feel safe, secure and in control, it is G-d who is truly running the show. As we do our very best on a natural plane, we must always know that our success is in G-d’s hands.

As we grieve for the loss of so many and hope and pray for many miracles to come, don’t be paralyzed by fear of the unknown because G-d is with us every step of the way - even if it feels irrational. Light Shabbat candles before sunset to bring more light to a world that became darker this week. Be sure to have a kosher Mezuzah on your doorpost and have a dedicated charity box in your home for daily giving.

The good deeds we do consistently help us nurture a stronger trust in G-d so we can confidently move forward bringing more hope, light and joy to our world, preparing it for the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Irrational foundations that go a long way

I am privileged to welcome Aharon and Mendel to El Paso. They are rabbinical students at the Central Chabad Yeshiva in Brooklyn and they will be spending two weeks visiting Jews in the El Paso area. They are members of the “Roving Rabbis” summer program, the oldest Jewish outreach program in the world, established and organized by the Rebbe himself in the early 1940s.

The Rebbe insisted that rabbinical students immersed in Torah study and spiritual pursuits should set aside several weeks of the summer to travel to all parts of the world and bring the beauty of Judaism to Jews unable to meaningfully engage on a regular basis. Many flourishing communities and impressive dynasties today are the results of these summer trips.

On the surface it would seem counterintuitive to pull young men out of the Yeshiva setting and send them off to places like the Australian outback, rural America or tiny Pacific islands. While these visits certainly benefit the isolated communities or individuals, can one justify the students’ lost study time and spiritual growth?

There are different types of Mitzvot. Some would have probably become proper human behavior even without G-d commanding us to do them - like giving charity or not murdering. Others we do only because G-d commanded us to do them, but they make sense in hindsight - like eating Matzah on Passover to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt 3,333 years ago and to inspire us to see G-d's redemptive miracles in our lives today. And then there are Mitzvot that have no rational explanation - like most details of the kosher diet.

We joyfully accepted all 613 Mitzvot at Mt. Sinai and each one of them is integral to the beautiful tapestry of Judaism, but in this week’s parsha the Torah introduces the Mitzvah of the “Red Heifer” with an expression indicating that it has a foundational impact on our identity as Jews more than other Mitzvot.

In Judaism there is a concept of ritual purity and impurity that has nothing to do with hygiene or morality and good behavior. Simply put, G-d decreed there are certain circumstances that make a person unfit to enter certain holy places or partake of certain holy foods. The most severe form of ritual impurity happens when touching a corpse and the purification process includes dipping in a Mikvah and being sprinkled with water mixed with ashes of the Red Heifer.

Here is a fascinating detail of the Red Heifer procedure. While it has the power to purify someone from the most severe ritual impurity, all the ritually pure people involved in preparing it become ritually impure!

There is no way to rationalize this law, but it teaches us a tremendous lesson in life. The highest form of Jewish service and purpose is to willingly sacrifice your own spiritual perfection to help others in need. To dedicate precious time for the benefit of others at your own expense.

I wish Aharon and Mendel much success in their short but meaningful stay in El Paso. May we all learn from their example to focus our attention and energies on uplifting and inspiring our surroundings to prepare our world for a time of true peace and tranquility for all with the arrival of Moshiach.

 

Everyone has a spark of goodness

As published in the El Paso Times

For the first time in recent history, the entire world experienced a common crisis for an extended period of time. Even as we gradually resume pre-Covid routines, it will never be the same.

I’ve seen first-hand the deep toll this year of Covid has taken on individuals, young and old. No one came away unaffected. Looking back at this deeply scarring year, we may ask ourselves a simple question: Do we, as human beings, have what it takes to confront this kind of adversity? Or for that matter any kind of difficulty that challenges us to our core?

The answer, I believe is yes. Simply put, there is something embedded in the human psyche that, if tapped into properly, can serve as an anchor for every human being to overcome adversity large or small and confront the unexpected changes we experience all the time.

The late Yehuda Avner served on the personal staff of five Israeli Prime Ministers. In 1977 he had a private meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the leader of the global Chabad-Lubavitch movement. During the lengthy conversation, Avner asked the Rebbe what exactly the role of a rebbe is.

“I will tell you what I’m trying to do,” the Rebbe replied. “Imagine you are looking at a cupboard, and you see a candle there, but I tell you that it is not a candle—it is a lump of wax with a piece of string inside. When does the wax and the wick become a candle? When one brings a flame to the wick. That is when the wax and the wick fulfill the purpose for which they were created.”

“And that is what I try to do—to help everyone fulfill the purpose for which they were created.”

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Avner asked  “Has the Rebbe lit my candle?” He answered, “No. I have given you the match. Only you can light your own candle.”

There is a fundamental premise in Judaism that everyone has a spark of goodness and justice within them. A unique energy that empowers them to impact the world for the good; the purpose of their creation. Unfortunately, this spirit of goodness can sometimes be dimmed and difficult to reach or even recognize, but the potential always remains.

It was this spark of goodness that the Rebbe sought to empower every individual to reveal. Just as a flame will be bright and warm under all circumstances; the Rebbe believed and taught that the core essence of goodness and morality within every person can survive under all circumstances and only needs to be revealed.

Eighty years ago, in the summer of 1941, the Rebbe and his wife arrived in the US after escaping the horrors of the Holocaust. Upon his arrival he set up a revolutionary outreach program that set the stage for the timeless traditions of Judaism to thrive and flourish in a society dominated by assimilation. When others felt that old-school ideas needed to be refreshed and updated to fit with modern times, the Rebbe illustrated that the core values of Judaism, morality and ethics were as timeless and resilient as the flame of a candle.

Our world is changing rapidly in so many ways. By focusing on the principles of decent human conduct, predicated on the awareness that every thought, speech and action is important to G-d and impacts the world around us, we remain anchored to an unchangeable truth. This gives us the strength to flame the spark of goodness within us and others into an inferno of positivity, good will and inspiration.

On Sunday, June 13 we observe the 27th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing in 1994. It’s an auspicious time for us all to reflect on how we can increase in acts of goodness and kindness, and encourage others to do so as well. To set aside time daily for prayer or quiet contemplation on the higher purpose and meaning of life. Ensuring that our own candles shine brightly and help others light their own, thereby preparing our little corner of the world for an era of true world peace and tranquility for all.

Mastering Transition

By nature I’m not a risk taker but change is inevitable and knowing how to embrace transition is crucial to self growth and success.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the debacle of the spies. On the threshold of inheriting the Promised Land, the Israelites demanded Moshe send spies to scout out the land. The best and brightest were chosen for the delicate mission, but upon their return most of them claimed that was impossible. 

They did not lie, per se, but framed their report in a way that frightened their brethren who wailed all night bemoaning their misfortune, infuriating G-d with devastating consequences: The Israelites spent forty years in the barren desert until the entire generation died and their children inherited the land instead.

Why would our nation's finest twist the truth to discourage the Jews from marching into the Land of Israel? What could they possibly gain from such  a conspiracy?

In the desert the Jews were in a spiritual utopia, experiencing daily miracles and studying Torah full time. Settling the land would mean a drastic transition to normalcy and these leaders feared that the inevitable preoccupation with farming and civic life would distract the people from their relationship with G-d.

Ironically, the spies were not conspiring against the people and only had their best interests in mind, but they misunderstood what Judaism is all about. While the insulated ghetto experience that allows one to focus on spiritual growth without distraction may be a style of Jewish living, it's not the ultimate goal. Judaism is meant to flourish within the physical and mundane, and struggling with temptation and distraction is part of nurturing our relationship with G-d. By forgetting the core purpose of Judaism, the spies resisted this crucial transition and brought disaster upon themselves and their people.

Tuesday will mark 80 years since the Rebbe and his wife Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka arrived in America. This date is significant, not only because of their miraculous escape from Nazi occupied Europe, but becasue it marks the beginning of a new era in Jewish life.

The Jewish pre-war migration to America came with a significant loss of Jewish observance, relegating tradition to the “Old World'' of European Jewry. When the previous Rebbe arrived in America in 1940, he established an “Old-World” style Yeshiva to prove that “old traditions” can flourish in America as well, but when the Rebbe arrived a year later, his mission was different: To harness the innovations, progress and culture of the “New World” to promote the timeless truths of Judaism and morality. 

This defines the Rebbe’s leadership and impact on the world at large: Guiding us in mastering the drastic transitions we constantly face in our modern era - while remaining true to the core mission of Judaism - to properly prepare the world for the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all humanity.

 

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