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Rabbis' Blog

Reflections On My 60th Birthday

A newborn baby cries. It prefers to remain enveloped in the warmth and safety of the womb so the mother can eat, sleep and breathe on its behalf and doesn't want to be independent. But birth happens regardless, with all of the pain and joy associated with it, and the infant now plays an independent role in the world.

This Tuesday (25 Menachem Av) I celebrate my 60th birthday. I’m grateful to G-d for reaching this milestone and for the many blessings in my life, but I think it’s important to reflect on the meaning of a birthday beyond the celebration.

Jewish tradition refers to a birthday as a personal “Rosh Hashanah.” Just as humanity collectively commemorates the anniversary of Adam’s creation as a fresh start to a new year, every individual marks their own birthday as a refreshing beginning of something new and special. The day you received G-d’s mandate to make a unique impact on the world.

Similar to childbirth, independence is very painful but there is no greater joy than making a difference in your own unique way.

Sixty years ago I came to the world under frightening circumstances. My parents were trapped in Soviet Russia and their steadfast observance of Judaism placed them at high risk of being imprisoned at any moment and us children being whisked away to government foster homes. Miraculously we immigrated to Israel when I was 5 and I had the great fortune of having a proper Jewish education and spending many glorious years studying in Brooklyn in close proximity to the Rebbe. I was privileged to hear the Rebbe teach Torah for over 10 years and a central theme of his talks was about the importance of being a leader.

The definition of a leader is not limited to one who holds public office or leads a team of sorts. Every single human being, by dint of their individuality, is a de-facto leader with the ability to elevate, inspire and better their environment.

To celebrate past accomplishments is nice, but upon deeper reflection, the deeds of the past are insufficient and independence requires you to assume responsibility and take initiative. On a birthday one should reflect on the painful insufficiencies of the past, but be inspired and excited by the opportunities of the coming year, because true leaders think about the future and not the past.

Dear friends,

As I give thanks to G-d for 60 years of life I pray for another 60 years of continued health, happiness, growth and accomplishment. I request that you do the same on your birthday. Realize the potential you have as an individual in the world and reflect on ways you can make the world a better place. Increase in your Torah study and Mitzvah observance. Whether it’s religious observances like wrapping Tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles and eating kosher, or Mitzvot that promote goodness and kindness among people.

May G-d bless you with much physical, material and spiritual goodness and we should merit to welcome Moshiach who will usher in an era of true world peace and tranquility.

 

 

 

Feel Young Again

Shainy’s grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Karp was a venerable scholar who taught Talmud to generations of students, young and old. He was an extraordinary teacher and the recordings of his Talmud classes continue to attract a following over twenty years after his passing.

Once when one of his students was visiting him at home, a Jew who had recently immigrated from the Soviet Union arrived for his regular Hebrew reading session with Rabbi Karp. He never learned to read Hebrew in Communist Russia and was eager to make up for the lost opportunity.

The visiting student asked Rabbi Karp if it was really necessary for a sage of his caliber to tutor this gentleman in a subject even a child could teach. Pointing to the large Taludic tome on his table and then to the Hebrew Alphabet booklet, Rabbi Karp passionately answered, “This is Torah and this is Torah!”

In this week’s parsha Va’eschanan Moshe teaches the Jewish people the “Shema Yisrael.” The paragraph of six verses recited twice daily which serves as an essential meditation to keep us focused on our relationship with G-d.

Torah study is the foundation of this relationship and the “Shema” communicates this important mitzvah to us in a seemingly roundabout manner: “You shall teach them (the lessons of the Torah) thoroughly to your children.”

True, in order to teach Torah you must first study Torah yourself, but why could the “Shema” not simply state “You shall study Torah” and then add a few words about the importance of education? Even more perplexing, Maimonides and the Code of Jewish Law both begin the section about the laws of Torah study with the obligation to teach children before recording the details of one's personal study obligations. Doesn’t personal study come first?

Children are impressionable and open to new vistas. Capable of absorbing what they are taught without bias or agenda. They are curious, available and excited to learn new things. Torah study, at all ages and stages in life, must be the same. 

When studying the Hebrew Alphabet, at any age and stage in life, one must accept the information and learn how to conform with the ground rules of Hebrew reading. The same is true about all levels of Torah scholarship. Even Torah innovation has ground rules and parameters. Instead of forcing Torah to conform with our biases and agendas we must allow Torah to enlighten us and inform our worldview. As the famous Chassidic saying goes, “You studied Torah - but what did Torah teach you?”

Torah study can and should always be a youthful experience. Through surrendering yourself to the Torah lessons you learn, you’ll be uplifted, enlightened and inspired.

The relationship is real

After a 15 month break due to Covid we recently restarted Havdalah services at Chabad on Saturday nights 20 minutes after the conclusion of Shabbat. We pray evening services, recite Havdalah, sing a song and settle down with refreshments to watch the weekly segment of the Living Torah series with inspirational teachings and stories of the Rebbe produced by Jewish Educational Media.

Last week we watched a brief excerpt from an interview of a fellow who was struggling with his wife’s insistence to start keeping a kosher home and other Jewish practices. One evening he accompanied his wife to an audience with the Rebbe and asked the Rebbe in writing why G-d really cared if the dairy spoon mixed a pot of chicken soup. Does G-d really care about all the nitty-gritty details of Jewish observance? What’s all the angst about?

“I don’t understand your question,” the Rebbe responded. “Mitzvot are not for G-d. They are for us. So that we should be able to have a relationship with G-d.”

Here was a Jew annoyed about his Jewishness and uninterested in the whole concept of observance, and the Rebbe tells him that  by wrapping Tefillin and eating a kosher sandwich he will be nurturing his relationship with G-d, even before he studies the entire Torah and achieves spiritual greatness. Is it possible for your run-of-the-mill Jew to have a real relationship with G-d?

This week we begin learning the fifth book of the Torah “Devarim.” You will notice the genre is vastly different from the first four books of the Torah. While the others are written in third-person (“G-d spoke to Moses”) this one is written in first-person (“G-d spoke to me”).

The fact that every word in the Torah was transcribed by Moses through divine communication is foundational to Jewish  belief, but the change of tone in Devarim is symbolic of a profound aspect of our relationship with G-d.

Torah was given to bridge the truly insurmountable gap between mortal physical human beings and our creator. The first four books were written as a transparent divine communication that uplifts us from the mundane and physical experience, allowing us to experience spiritual transcendence. The fifth book speaks in the language of the human experience, signaling that a relationship with G-d can be achieved even while still entrenched in the mundane and ordinary physical experience.

Through wrapping Tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, eating kosher and giving charity you develop a real relationship with G-d despite your lack of spiritual feeling and experience. If you feel the same after doing a mitzvah, you’re still on the right track, because G-d is genuinely present in the human experience as well, not just in spiritual transcendence.

Saturday night and Sunday we will observe Tisha B’av - commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem around 2,000 years ago. The Holy Temple was a space where Jews experienced spiritual transcendence on a daily basis and since its destruction much of the spiritual pomp and ceremony of Judaism ceased.

Devarim teaches us however that  we continue to have a genuine and profound relationship with G-d even in our bleak and dreary exile. Even without feeling it, each time we do a mitzvah we prepare our world for an era of true global peace and tranquility, with the rebuilding of the Holy Temple through Moshiach, may it happen immediately.

When bad mistakes can be considered progress

It’s travel season and everyone flying domestically will tell you that Americans are traveling extensively this summer. Planning for trips is fun, but it’s the unexpected things that happen on the way that make them most memorable and meaningful.

My kids still talk about the time we got stuck in Vicksburg, Mississippi overnight due to a broken axle and the ten hours we sat in stand still traffic in the middle of Texas during the massive snow storm earlier this year.

These unexpected situations are caused either by external circumstances or clumsy errors, but in the end we often look back at them with appreciation.

In the second parsha we learn this week - “Masei” - Moshe describes the 40 year journey the Jewish people just concluded, starting with the exodus from Egypt culminating with their imminent arrival to the Land of Israel at the Jordan River. He records the 42 places the people encamped along the way and the mention of some of these places brings back some haunting and traumatizing memories.

The place where they complained about the heavenly food G-d sent them every morning and the site where the horrendous debacle of the spies that delayed their arrival in Israel by 39 years went down, just to mention two of them. Nevertheless, all of the encampments are called “journeys with which the Israelites left Egypt.” They were all part of a process of leaving Egypt and reaching the Promised Land.

How can the bitter memories of the Golden Calf or the Korach rebellion be integral to their epic desert journey to Israel? Are these encampments considered points of progress in the process of freedom from Egpytian slavery to settling in the Holy Land?

Here’s the catch. From the very beginning to the very end G-d was always with them. Even in the darkest moments of treason and heresy, the divine cloud representing G-d’s presence never left the Israelite camp. Because G-d’s covenant is eternal and even the gravest mistakes can be fixed, serving as the stepping stones for even greater and unanticipated spiritual growth and achievement.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that the life each individual experiences here and now is a spiritual microcosm of the itinerary of the Israelites’ desert journey over 3,000 years ago. The soul descends from heaven into the spiritual wilderness of this physical reality and is faced with the challenge of choosing right over wrong and good over evil, day in and day out.

Like our ancestors we stumble and falter, sometimes due to external factors and at times due to our own forced errors, but we must remember that G-d is always with us at every point of our journey, waiting patiently and lovingly for us to work through it all until we reach our ultimate goal. To prepare the world for the era of Moshiach when true peace and tranquility will reign for all, through increasing our Torah study and Mitzvah observance one step at a time.

What we can learn from talking parchment

I remember waiting in line for the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. It was a very long time ago and I have almost no recollection of Liberty Island itself, but the line to the ferry was memorable because two street entertainers did flips and somersaults which I thought were awesome.

In this week's parsha we learn how the Jews - on the threshold of inheriting the Promised Land - divided the land between each other in a dramatic public ceremony. The land was divided into 12 districts based on area-units of equal fertility. The names of the twelve tribes were written on 12 tickets and placed in a box and the 12 districts were written on 12 tickets and placed into a different box.

Elazar the High Priest was garbed in his priestly garments which included the miraculous breastplate with stones engraved with names of all the tribes. Looking at the Choshen, Elazar prophetically called out which tribe would choose which district. Then a prince from each tribe placed his hand in the box of tribal names and picked out the name of his tribe and then placed his hand in the box with districts and miraculously pulled out the district Elazar had just determined.

If that sounds amazing, here is what happened next: The ticket on which was written the inheritance miraculously spoke, saying, “I, the lot of such-and-such a region, have become the inheritance of such-and-such a tribe.”

Last week we read about a talking donkey and this week we discover that pieces of parchment spoke in front of the masses!

Why was it necessary for G-d to perform such a miracle to prove that their inheritance was fair? Was not Elazar’s prophecy and the dramatic lottery itself not sufficient to prove this point?

We have a tendency to regard preparations as technical distractions and try to rush through them to get to the point. I mostly skip book introductions, don’t enjoy preparing my own meals and get annoyed when waiting in line. But that’s what we do most of our life - prepare and wait.

Although the lottery was just a preparation for the inheritance of the Promised Land, it was such a dramatic and miraculous event to teach us that we need to focus on our preparations with the same attention and energy as we focus on our goals. Wherever you are at the moment, be there one hundred percent.

Today we live in a reality that is a preparation for something bigger and better. An era when there will be no suffering, jealousy, competition or strife. But as we live through the preparation for the wonderful era of Moshiach it’s crucial to appreciate that today’s reality is meaningful as well. We must engage in perfecting our imperfect world with the same gusto and relish  with which we will surely enjoy the beauty of the perfect world to come.

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