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Rabbis' Blog

Why they chose to stay

For weeks foreigners in Ukraine were warned to leave but on Thursday morning, as the invasion began, I paid more attention than usual to the news because I have close family there in several cities currently under attack. All of them are foreigners and yet they chose to stay despite all the warnings. Why?

The short answer is that they are the Chabad emissaries entrusted with the responsibility of leading their communities - and in the spirit of maritime law that the captain aborts the ship last - staying until there are no Jews left to look out for. But to leave it at that would ignore an important nuance. They all moved there voluntarily in the 1990s to inspire a Jewish renaissance with the dissolution of the USSR when communist persecution ended. While educating fellow Jews is a vital mission, does it justify remaining even in times of trouble? Why were they not recalled similar to how sovereign nations recall their diplomats from war zones?

This Shabbat marks 30 years since the Rebbe held a public Shabbat gathering at Chabad World Headquarters. On the following Monday the Rebbe suffered a stroke while praying at the Ohel (gravesite of the Previous Rebbe) and the talk the Rebbe spoke two days earlier explains why his representatives in Ukraine chose to stay.

This week and next we study the Torah portions of Vayakhel and Pekudei which both describe the actual construction of the Mishkan - the divine tabernacle the Jews were instructed to build the desert. While the two portions have a common topic, their names are vastly dissimilar. “Vayakhel” means “and he gathered” emphasizing the idea of community and “Pekudei” means “counting” which emphasizes the role of the individual. 

The Rebbe asked a simple question: perhaps the order of the portions should have been reversed. Surely one needs to perfect the individuals before bringing them together as a community? 

The Torah chose to present these names in this order to teach us that the state of the individuals should not interfere with uniting them as a community and that’s exactly what the Rebbe expects of his representatives.

Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins are in every corner of the globe not just to educate individuals; their mission is to create communities composed of young and old, rich and poor, mobile and immobile alike. With their arrival to cities in Ukraine decades ago devoid of any Jewish communal infrastructure, these men and women immediately created communities and are staying with them now until every single individual is out of harm’s way.

I take inspiration from my colleagues in Ukraine to increase my efforts in ensuring that more individuals feel part of the community and I hope you will join me in these efforts.

War is frightening and we hope and pray that it ends swiftly, with the least amount of devastation. Our brethren in Ukraine need our support more than ever before and I thank everyone who has already participated in the emergency appeal to help my family in Odessa do what they need to do to keep their community safe. If you have not had the chance to donate, please consider doing so here.

May we merit very soon to experience the realization of Isaiah's prophecy “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 anymore.”


Why should I care?

Last week I had a short pre Shabbat phone conversation with a friend that went something like this: “OK. Please share with me what this week’s parsha is about, and why I should care.”

Seems quite the challenge to take a document written thousands of years ago and make it relevant to 2022, but it was from the easiest things I did that day because that’s the definition of Torah: It’s an unchanging living document that remains relevant every single day, thousands of years later. Let’s apply the same expectation to this week’s parsha Ki Tisa - a rollercoaster of a narrative found seldom anywhere else in Torah.

It starts off on a high. Moshe received the two tablets from G-d after learning the entire Torah for forty days and nights on Mt. Sinai. These tablets represented the marriage contract between G-d and the Jews, and the relationship was perfect.

Then the Jews miscalculated Moshe’s return and succumbed to the temptation of idolatry by crafting and serving a golden calf a little over a month after experiencing the greatest divine revelation known to humanity. If the spiritual fall from grace was not enough, the Jews faced their gravest existential threat, because G-d was furious and decreed their immediate annihilation.

Ultimately Moshe heroically defended the Jews by smashing the tablets and  secured atonement for the sin. G-d instructed him to prepare another set of tablets and on Yom Kippur the case was closed. Our divine relationship was restored, stronger than ever before. If we survived that crisis, we could survive anything. 

This dramatic story is in fact the script of world history and destiny. In the beginning the world was a perfectly serene and peaceful divine garden. Then temptation and ego led humanity down a road of self indulgence and the world devolved into a chaotic jungle of billions of competing people jockeying for more money, fame or power leaving in their wake so much pain and suffering. Was creation a mistake?

This week’s parsha reveals that every worthwhile endeavor has a high-low-high narrative. Even if it started on a high note it will experience many tough challenges until it ultimately achieves its intended goal and purpose.

Don’t allow the rough and tumble of our world to demoralize you. It is meant to bring us to the era of the ultimate redemption through Moshiach when true peace and tranquility will reign for all. But this peace will be the result of our hard work in navigating the tough realities of life and learning to rise above our subjective temptations to work together in making our world a more divine place. We will own it this time.

Knowing the future is brighter than ever gives us the energy and momentum to do our part in making the end goal a reality. Increase in Torah learning, mitzvah observance and acts of kindness and together we will usher in the era of world perfection with Moshiach.

Holy Inclusivity

A gentile once walked past a synagogue as the congregation read this week’s parsha describing the beautiful uniform the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) wore while serving in the Holy Temple. Impressed with the beauty of those glorious vestments, he decided to become Jewish and do whatever it takes to become a Kohen Gadol.

He approached the great sage Shammai and expressed his desire to convert to Judaism to achieve the rank of Kohen Gadol and was understandably rejected. Not to be dissuaded easily, the fellow approached the sage Hillel with the same request. Hillel agreed on condition he would first study the Holy Temple service laws thoroughly before embarking on such a life changing journey.

While studying the relevant chapters in the Torah the gentile noticed the warning “a stranger who performs the service shall die.” He asked Hillel about the definition of “stranger” in the context of the Holy Temple service. “I am a stranger,” said Hillel. “Like most Jews not descended from the Priestly lineage of Aaaron Kohen Gadol.” He got the message and converted to Judaism without conditions.

Although the privilege of performing the Holy Temple service was exclusive to a certain family, they represented every single Jew in their holy work. Here is an interesting example of how this inclusivity played out in the most exclusive element of the service.

While all the Kohanim wore the same white uniform of four garments, only the Kohen Gadol wore an extra pair of four exquisite garments which included a beautiful robe of blue wool. On its bottom hem there were pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson wool, and golden bells. Everything about the uniform was extremely important but few details got the same attention as the noisy bells. Here’s what the Torah says about them: “It shall be on Aaron when he performs the service, and its sound shall be heard when he enters the Holy before the L-rd and when he leaves, so that he will not die.”

What do these noisy bells represent that makes them so crucial to the service, to the point that failure to wear them deserves a direct warning of the death penalty?

There are two types of Jews: those who struggle with Judaism and those who take to it naturally. The naturally pious types approach their divine service with calm, serene silence, impervious to the distractions of the world around them, while those who wrestle with the highs and lows of living Jewishly in a spiritually hostile world typically generate much noise in their battle for religious clarity.

That’s why these noisy bells were so crucial. The holiest Jew could not serve G-d in the holiest place on earth without representing every segment of our nation - even the noisiest strugglers. Because we can only achieve our loftiest goals as a community if we have everyone on board.


Using Your Gold

“Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”

That’s a quote from Pirkei Avot and sounds like a nice suggestion for character development. But in truth, the premise of this teaching is rooted in a fundamental Jewish belief that shapes our entire perspective of reality.

Public figures are commended for transparency in every part of their lives. From their daily schedules, wardrobe, diet and entertainment preferences. The public devours this information and delves into the minute details to the point of madness. For example, there can be lengthy Twitter threads discussing the tie color the president wore at a press conference.

While this all sounds absurd, it’s perfectly understandable for us to expect our leaders to utilize every moment of the day and every interaction in a manner that dignifies the nation he or she serves. Even the color of the tie or shoes makes a statement of what we stand for.

G-d is the most transparent entity we can possibly imagine. After all, His handiwork is on full display everywhere. It’s logical that every single detail of reality must enhance the honor G-d truly deserves. And the only way that can happen is if everything in this world is a contributor. If even one detail of creation was a carbon copy of another, it cannot truly enhance G-d’s glory.

For the next five weeks we learn of G-d’s instructions to the Israelites about constructing the Tabernacle or Sanctuary in the desert. A space that served as a beacon of inspiration for all humanity.

The detailed instructions served as a template for how all subsequent Holy Temples were later constructed, but historically they all looked different. Concerning the Holy Temple Maimonides writes “They must make it beautiful and attractive according to their potential. If possible, it is a mitzvah to plate it with gold and to magnify all of its aspects.” While the basic template always remained the same, the details varied based on the unique potential of the generation. And it was those details that made the Temples truly attractive.

Our sages point out that the Hebrew words of the commandment “Make a sanctuary for Me (G-d) and I will dwell in their midst”  literally translate “and I will dwell within them.” This nuance indicates that each one of us is mandated to create a home for G-d within ourselves. To become a beacon of inspiration for everyone around us. And while the template for how to do so is clearly articulated in the Code of Jewish Law, we are obligated to do it in our own unique way.

Every individual was granted unique superior qualities - your personal “gold” - and utilizing them in the service of G-d makes your personal Holy Temple truly attractive.

It turns out that learning from every person is the best way to validate your own unique contributions to the world and to appreciate G-d’s true glory. 


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