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Rabbis' Blog

About World Peace

Every now and then the world enters a disturbing phase of fearing a new war will break out somewhere, dragging other nations into an unwanted conflict. Ukraine has been dominating the news lately and the U.S. and Russia - former Cold War rivals - are facing another showdown.

As a private citizen I have no suggestions for the world leaders, diplomats and military strategists charged with handling this crisis. But as a Jew I’m obligated to absorb this information and grow in my personal life. After all, the Baal Shem Tov taught that one must learn a lesson from everything one sees or hears.

January 31 marks 30 years since 13 heads of state and foreign ministers - including US President George H. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin - met for the first summit-level meeting of the United Nations Security Council. The Friday meeting reaffirmed the central role of the Security Council in maintaining world peace and upholding the principle of collective security as envisioned in the United Nations Charter.

The next day, during the Shabbat gathering held in Chabad World Headquarters the Rebbe spoke extensively about this historic meeting.

“Here, before our very eyes, the major powers are proclaiming their desire to establish a new and humanitarian world order of justice and peace,” the Rebbe said. “This is a tangible foretaste of the idyll envisioned by the prophet Isaiah: They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.”

The Rebbe also made note of the fact that this prophecy is engraved on the wall facing United Nations Headquarters in New York City, the location of this historic meeting.

In this week’s parshah G-d communicates many laws regarding interpersonal relationships. Issues ranging from simple civil disputes about property damages and careless custodians all the way through kidnapping, murder and rape. It’s a jarring change of pace from the peaceful events of the revelation at Sinai described in last week’s parshah and the construction of the Tabernacle described in next week’s parshah. But Judaism is all about facing the realities of our world and introducing divinity into all the details of life, even the nasty ones. By working through all these challenges in a Torah mandated fashion we can bring the entire world to a state of peace and tranquility.

As evidenced by current events we are certainly not there yet, but humanity today craves peace over war, and we must get to a point where war will no longer be an option.

Maimonides declared over 850 years ago that one single good deed, spoken word and even thought can usher in the Messianic era of world peace. If this sounds naive to you, please consider that it only took a few gunshots fired by a 23 year old Serbian political activist in Bosnia to plunge the world into war. Just as light is more powerful than darkness, goodness is more potent than evil.

My takeaway from this week’s global drama is the vital importance to increase in acts of goodness and kindness so that we imminently usher in an era of true global peace through Moshiach and we will never need to deal with such problems again.

 

Ethics is an exact science

At the Kosher Food Club lunch this week the teens mentioned an ethics course offered at school. When I asked what the course was about, they shrugged and said “Debating ideas back and forth.”

I was intrigued to learn more about this course and how the students viewed it and asked if the syllabus included any rules as to what is considered ethical or not. I was surprised to hear that in the context of the course “ethics” meant your own personal beliefs, so I decided to make an impromptu experiment.

“Can you explain why murder is fundamentally wrong?” I asked the group. They all agreed murder was terrible and intolerable, but could not formulate a logical argument why it was fundamentally wrong. Things get more complicated when considering the fact that killing in self-defense seems to be the right thing to do. Where do you draw the line?

In this week’s parshah we learn about “Matan Torah,” the dramatic event when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. There was a tremendous commotion throughout the world, with an impressive display of thunder and lightning as G-d communicated the Ten Commandments directly the recently freed slaves gathered around the mountain.

It was a truly consequential event but when reading the story something truly perplexing emerges. Most of the commandments deal with elementary issues like honoring parents, being honest and not killing or stealing. Do these simple messages justify such global pomp and ceremony? Don’t we all know this intuitively?

Here’s the thing. If society abstains from killing and stealing just because it feels wrong - without being motivated by fundamental principles - people will find ways to rationalize the worst possible behaviors. Need I say more than “Nazi Germany?”

I recently saw a Facebook post of a letter a German high school principal shares with his teachers every year.

“I am one of the survivors of a concentration camp. My eyes have seen things no man should see. Gas chambers built by well trained engineers, children poisoned by well trained doctors, babies killed with needles by well trained nurses, people shot and burned by high school and university graduates.”

“This is why I’m skeptical of education. My request to you is as follows. Strive to make your students human. Don’t allow your efforts to produce knowledgeable monsters and inventive psychopaths. Literacy and math only matter if they help your children become more human.”

This is why the Revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments are such a big deal for all humanity. They yanked ethics out of the “liberal arts” column and placed it squarely in the “exact sciences” column. Ethics are not defined by our feelings or societal norms; they are determined by G-d. The fundamental reason we must never murder is because G-d forbids it; and the same G-d permits killing in cases of genuine self-defense.

Sinai made it possible for world peace to happen. So long as we rely on our own subjective reasoning to shape societal norms there will always be jealousy and war. When we allow the fundamental principles of G-d to guide our way of life, this will set the stage for all humanity to live in total harmony and cooperation.

Yep. Sinai was a big deal.

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Something you should know about trees

My grandparents, Rabbi Gershon Mendel and Bassie Garelik, were newlyweds when they embarked on their life-long mission to Milan, Italy. The Rebbe appointed them to be his emissaries to bring the light and joy of Judaism to Italian Jewry in the winter of 1958, and they were sent off from Chabad World Headquarters with much pomp and ceremony, brimming with idealistic optimism.

Six years later the daily grind was getting to my grandmother. Upon their arrival there they established a Jewish school and those early years were extremely challenging, to put it mildly. Things came to a head and she shared her frustration with the Rebbe in a letter which stated amongst other things, “I feel like my soul came to this world to knock on people’s doors to recruit their children to a Jewish school and get rejected.”

The Rebbe responded with a beautiful letter of encouragement and I’d like to share one paragraph we can all learn from.

“In the literature of Chassidus, such activities are classified and explained under two categories: “seeding” and “planting.” The difference is this: In the case of seeding, as, for example, sowing wheat, the fruits take less time to appear than in the case of planting a tree. The reason is that in the case of the former the results, though many times the original effort, are considerably smaller than in the case of planting.”

“Similarly in the efforts and activities of a human being, there are such that come under one category and/or the other. If, therefore, it sometimes takes longer for the efforts to come to fruition, this is no reason for discouragement; on the contrary, the reason may well be that it is a case of “planting,” where the ultimate results will be infinitely greater.”

Needless to say, this school is today a thriving institution and the pride and joy of the community.

On Monday we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Jewish month Shevat which is identified as the “New Year for Trees.” While this date holds the most significance and relevance regarding agriculture in the Land of Israel, it is the message we can learn from trees that should inspire us on this day - because the Torah compares people to trees.

Contrary to a wheat field where one can throw seeds into the ground indiscriminately and expect results very soon, trees demand much attention and patience and the results can take many many years until they finally appear. But fruits are far superior than wheat kernels in so many ways. Children demand tremendous attention and patience and it can take years of sweat, tears and aggravation until we see the delicious results and the same is true of community.

Jewish education and community activism are a labor of love, and with the right amount of effort, patience and belief in the cause we will see the fruits of our labor in due time.

 

 

The “Long Form” Birth Certificate

Among the chaos and excitement of birth there is always someone watching the clock to determine the “time of birth.” Aside from recording the date of birth, we keep track of the exact minute this new life entered the world, which is recorded on our “long form” birth certificate.

In this week’s parshah we learn how after generations of slavery the long awaited redemption finally happened after G-d afflicted Egypt with the final plague of killing their firstborn children. The Torah records the day and time the plague struck: midnight of the 15th of Nissan - famously celebrated today as the first day of Passover.

As predicted, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and Pharaoh frantically demanded the Jews leave immediately. Moshe refused to budge until daybreak and by the time the group of millions of Jews left Egypt it was in the middle of the day. In fact the Torah once again records the exact hour: midday.

The prophet Ezekiel compares the exile in Egypt as a time of pregnancy and the exodus as the birth of the Jewish nation; when they were finally extricated from the environs of another nation. So Passover is our national birthday. As is customary with all births it seems logical for the Torah - as our national “long form” birth certificate - to record the exact moment of our birth as a nation in addition to the date. But here is the big question: were we born at midnight, when Pharaoh announced our freedom, or at midday, when we actually left the land of our affliction?

There are good reasons to trace our national birth minute to either midnight or midday but the fact that both times are recorded in Torah is in order to teach us something profound about Exodus and its relevance to us here and now.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim” which is etymologically linked to the Hebrew word for borders and limitations. The redemption we celebrate on Passover is not just the commemoration of our ancestors’ freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt. It was the watershed moment when every Jew was given the ability to overcome every limitation, constraint or challenge that he or she may ever encounter. We are never truly enslaved to our inner vices or inhibitions.

This fact must be clear to every single Jew regardless of their situation in life - whether they are at the point of “midnight” or “midday” in their personal lives. Midnight represents the ultimate darkness and midday represents the most brilliant light. If a Jew may currently be the lowest of the low - he or she should know that they can overcome everything to rise above it all to fix their lives. And if a Jew is at the pinnacle of spiritual achievement, he or she must know that there is always room for more growth.

Because breaking through boundaries is the foundation of our Jewish identity.

 

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