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Rabbis' Blog

Be Yourself

We had the pleasure of taking a family trip to New York this summer and thankfully the journey was fairly uneventful, all things considered. The kids managed with the masks for both flights and a nice play area in Dallas Love Field helped our three hour delay pass by cheerfully.

Flying to the East Coast is a full day event and in the many hours spent around so many strangers I could not help but admire how a kaleidoscope of humanity was so similar and so different. Everyone wore a mask, buckled their seatbelts for take-off and landing and headed to the same destination, but that’s where the commonalities ended.

Passengers spoke different languages, ate different foods and spent their flight doing different things. Some traveled for business while others headed home. Some were flying for good reasons and others for painful ones. But they were all in the same airplane adhering to the same flight rules.

In this week’s parsha we read about the Mitzvah of Bikkurim - the ultimate gratitude ritual. Every Jewish landowner in Israel was obligated to bring the first and best fruits from their orchard to the Holy Temple to be given to the Kohanim. Before handing the fruits to the Kohen the Jew would recite a powerful prayer of thanksgiving to G-d for the gift of life, health and prosperity in the Promised Land.

The list of fruits worthy of being brought as Bikkurim was limited to the five fruits the Torah defines as the beauty and praise of the Promised Land: figs, dates, grapes, olives and pomegranates. You’d think that to properly express gratitude to G-d you need to search the land for the best and most beautiful grapes or olives to be found in Israel to impress G-d with Bikkurim.

Not at all. Bikkurim was brought from the fruit that grew in your personal orchard, not the larger and juicier pomegranates or dates that may have grown in your neighbor's orchard. While everyone’s Bikkurim consisted of the same five fruits - the value of the fruits in comparison to others was irrelevant. They had to be the best of your orchard alone.

This detail provides us with a profound insight in Jewish observance and our relationship with G-d. While Mitzvot must be done in the same way by everyone, detail will inevitably vary and there is no competition about it. For example, on Sukkot only an Etrog fruit is used to make the blessing on the Four Kinds. A lemon or orange or any other fruit will not suffice. But the specific size, shape and color of the Etrog is not the issue and you are only expected to purchase an Etrog in accordance with your means.

We were all granted unique talents and abilities and the passion, excitement and devotion we invest in our Mitzvah observance is unique to every individual. Even while adhering to the same rules our relationship with G-d can be truly unique and special.

 

The advantageous type of war

After the Battle of Waterloo the Duke of Wellington famously said “The only thing worse than a battle lost is a battle won.” True, Napoleon had to be stopped, but a victory at the price of tens of thousands dead and maimed on both sides was nothing to feel proud about.

Wars are ugly and painful for the victor and vanquished and we hope and pray for a time when war will never happen again in the era of the final redemption through Moshiach. Until then war is inevitable and Torah provides guidelines for all aspects of war.

Thankfully there are times of peace and tranquility and even when a nation is at war the overwhelming majority of its citizens can continue living fairly peaceful lives. Does that render Torah war laws irrelevant during peacetime?

Even if the practical application of a Mitzvah may be limited to a specific time and space, the spirit of every Mitzvah is relevant to all people at all times and in all places. Even during times of peace there is much for us to learn from Torah’s attitude to war.

Doing the right thing is always a struggle, because G-d created us with two internal forces that influence our psyche. The Yetzer Tov (good inclination) is the agent of goodness, morality and divine service. This internal voice encourages us to better our world, help others, learn more Torah and observe more Mitzvot. This force is our ally.

The Yetzer Harah (evil inclination) is the agent of ego, self centeredness and corruption. This internal voice seeks to make us apathetic to divine truth and only care for what is beneficial for ourselves to the exclusion of all others. This force is our enemy.

The struggle between these two forces is ongoing and the victor is determined by us and a grammatical nuance in the opening words of this week’s parsha provide an important lesson in how to keep high morale in this life-long war.

“If you go out to war over your enemies and G-d will deliver them into your hands and you will take captives.” (Deuteronomy 21:10)

Unlike traditional wars where the outcome is uncertain at the outset, the Torah uses the words “over your enemies” instead of “with your enemies,” promising us that when following G-d’s instructions we can be certain of victory. Even when the going gets rough in the internal battle between good and evil, know that you are gifted with immeasurable moral and divine strength to win.

And unlike traditional wars where victor and vanquished both lose out, the victory of good over evil in our life-long internal battle is advantageous for everyone involved. So get into the fight with your head held high and win!

 

The Unplanned and Accidental

On Thursday I caught an unplanned ride with my brother back to New York City when a Jew living in a remote town in Alabama called him. This fellow’s brother lives in Wichita, KS  where my brother and his wife lead the local Chabad Center. Every week both brothers participate in his online Torah class and there are often follow questions and discussions by phone. My brother was preoccupied with driving so he handed me the phone and suggested I share some thoughts on the weekly Parsha with his friend from Alabama.

Happy to oblige we started chatting about the mitzvah of “Sanctuary Cities.” In parshat Shoftim the Israelites are commanded to dedicate special cities in the Land of Israel to serve as safe havens for anyone who killed another person accidentally. Even though the murder was unintentional, the fact that such a devastating tragedy occurred through him or her warrants an intense atonement through being displaced from home and forced to live in a sanctuary city.

Three sanctuary cities were designated on the western side of the Jordan River (mainland Israel) and three others were designated on the eastern side of the Jordan River - territory annexed to the Land of Israel even before the conquest. The Torah states that there will come a time in the future when G-d will broaden Israel’s borders to include three new territories. When that happens we are commanded to designate another three sanctuary cities in those territories for the same purpose.

Maimonides explains that Israel’s future expansion will occur in the era of Moshiach and concludes that the fact that the mitzvah of three additional sanctuary cities cannot be observed until the ultimate redemption proves the redemption will definitely happen. G-d would not give us a mitzvah that can never be fulfilled.

“How do we bring Moshiach?” my new friend from Alabama asked.

“Through doing another Mitzvah and learning more Torah,” I replied. We don’t know which Mitzvah will make it happen. We must view ourselves and the world as equally balanced between good and evil. Doing one good deed can tip the scale and bring redemption to yourself and the entire world.

But my unplanned and accidental conversation with the Jew from Alabama itself was illustrative of the unique connection between the mitzvah of sanctuary cities and Moshiach. The Chassidic masters taught us a rule that nothing happens by accident. You may have never planned to be someplace or meet someone but the circumstances that brought you together were pre planned before creation and have a purpose.

Sanctuary cities were created to help people who did terrible things by accident, and Moshiach will come when we utilize every “accident” or unplanned encounter for positivity. Be sure to have a Torah thought or inspiring story in mind to share with everyone and anyone you meet and turn every encounter into an opportunity for sharing and inspiration.

 

It’s about the regular stuff

The end of the year in any enterprise is a serious time. Whether it’s a business, school or government agency, every twelfth month there is an urgency in the air. Projects are due, accountings are expected and preparing for the new cycle brings with it an extra level of focus.

Judaism is the same and our annual month to account for the past and prepare our proposal for the future begins this Sunday at the start of the month of Elul. Gearing up to Rosh Hashanah, we add in our daily prayers and blow the Shofar every day (aside for Shabbat) reminding us of higher purpose and divine service. But strangely enough its daily routines are religiously no different than any other weekdays of the year.

Over 200 years ago Chabad Chassidic teachings introduced a powerful new perspective to the month of Elul in the guise of a story of a benevolent king typically ensconced in the palace surrounded by guards, servants and ministers. Gaining a royal audience is impossible for regular subjects and on the rare occasion someone is granted entry to the throne room, they must dress in special clothing and behave according to strict protocol.

Once a year the king wishes to meet the commoners on their turf. He dons peasant clothing and ventures out the fields alone, without the regular entourage of ministers and guards. It is there, sans the usual pomp and ceremony, that the king is in a marvelous mood and becomes accessible to all.

Different realities of our world can be defined as “palace” and “field.” Holy days and spaces are the “palaces” of G-d’s kingdom and the mundane regular times and spaces in our lives are the “fields.” Those “palace” days and spaces come with certain expectations and protocols and provide a context in which one feels more easily elevated and spiritual, whereas the “fields” are informal and devoid of accessible inspiration.

It’s only natural to feel more Jewish and fulfilled when praying in the synagogue on Shabbat than while sitting in standstill traffic on the way to work on a Tuesday morning. It’s easier to be aware of higher purpose when studying Torah than while running on the treadmill following doctor’s orders.

The month of Elul, with its paradoxical mundaneness and elevated spirituality, teaches us that our proposal for the next year must include more than just our commitment to increasing our synagogue attendance or adding to our Torah study schedule. We need to appreciate that even the mundane areas of life can and should be more G-dly and serve a higher purpose.

As in the story of the king, G-d wants to be present in our “fields” - in our regular daily routines - just as He is present in our “palaces” - our special holy days and spaces. Reflect on how everything in life is orchestrated from Above and how every encounter, event and enterprise can be the conduit for added goodness and meaning in our world.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet new year.

 

 

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