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Rabbis' Blog

Too busy to notice miracles

Hands-on experience is critical to mastering any trade. A medical student will never go straight from the classroom into the operating room as the lead surgeon without observing and training in hundreds of surgeries. An engineering student will never build a bridge based solely on the information he or she learned in the textbook and you will never get a driver’s license just by memorizing the DMV driving manual without getting behind the wheel.

In this week’s parsha the Torah enumerates the permitted and prohibited animals, birds, fish and grasshoppers (you read that correctly) for kosher consumption. For most species, a specific set of signs were designated as indicators of their kosher status while others are identified by name. The list is long and detailed including exotic species from distant lands the Israelites had never seen before.

As all other Torah laws, G-d communicated them to Moshe in the desert and he in turn immediately shared the information with the nation. The Torah records Moshe’s opening words to the kosher lesson “This is the living creature you may eat…” Our sages explain that Moshe did not merely enumerate a laundry list for them to memorize, he held up every single animal specimen in the world and announced “this is kosher” or “this is not kosher.” The same thing happened with every bird, fish, grasshopper and insect.

What you just read sounds like a profound lesson in education but what has gone unnoticed for thousands of years is the fact that this hands-on kosher lesson was perhaps the greatest miracle to ever happen in history! How did Moshe get his hands on a specimen of every animate being - including fish - in the desert? This phenomenon outshines all the miracles of exodus by far!

The fact that there is no emphasis on the awesomeness of this epic miracle in all of Torah literature is even more mind boggling. But in truth, this itself teaches us a profound lesson about Torah and Torah study.

Axiomatic to Jewish belief is the idea that the Torah is the blueprint of creation and its study and implementation is the purpose of creation. It follows that when the Jews needed to learn a Torah topic that necessitated intimate knowledge of even the most exotic animate species, it was a given that nature would deliver these specimens to them even in the desert. Furthermore, the Jews were too busy absorbing the Torah information, they could not be distracted by marveling at the miracle occurring in front of their eyes. They had to get it right and too much was hanging in the balance.

This illustrates the importance of Torah study and how seriously we should take it. Set aside time to learn some Torah every day. Make that time sacrosanct where nothing can distract you because it’s the foundation of Jewish living.


Cleaning Dishes

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Chiya lived in Israel during the difficult period following the destruction of the Second Holy Temple. At the time most Jewish towns could not afford to provide a basic Jewish education for their children and the future of Torah scholarship nationwide was in danger of extinction.

Here is what Rabbi Chiya did to single handedly reverse this frightening course. He planted flax, spun nets to hunt deer which he slaughtered, donated their meat to the poor and prepared parchment from the hides to write five separate books of the Torah. He then traveled to a remote town, gave the five scrolls to five separate children, taught each one how to read and understand them and taught six children the six orders of the Mishna. He instructed each one to share their knowledge with the rest of the children in town and thus provided educational opportunities for thousands and ensured the legacy of Judaism survived that terrible era.

Did the venerable sage need to personally plant the flax, spin the nets, hunt the deer and produce the parchment all by himself? Could he not have contracted out all the “dirty work” to others and get involved specifically where his expertise as a world class scholar were needed?

In this week’s parsha we learn of the first service performed in the Holy Temple every day. All night sacrifices burned on the altar and each morning a Kohen was tasked with ascending the altar and shoveling off a ceremonial shovel of ashes. When the pile of ashes became very large they removed it to the outskirts of the city. Regarding this, the Torah states “He shall then take off his garments and put on other garments, and he shall take out the ashes to a clean place outside the camp.”

So there were two distinct services done with the ashes. The daily early morning removal of a small amount which was done in full ceremonial regalia, and then the periodic full scale removal of the entire pile which was done in an older, less impressive looking uniform.

The rationale for changing clothing while removing the whole pile of ashes is to not soil the officiating garments. After all, a royal butler would not wear the same uniform when serving the king and cooking dinner in the kitchen.

However, one can argue that the same person doesn’t need to do both the task of cooking dinner and serving the king in the royal ballroom. Why did the same Kohen perform both the early morning ceremonial shovel full removal as well as the more labor intensive full scale ash removal? Because when it comes to serving G-d, every aspect of divine service is special and one should not prioritize the fancy looking ceremonial elements over the simpler tougher chores that need to get done.

Rabbi Chiya valued the tough labor necessary to prepare the scrolls as much as he valued the high-quality study time he had with the children, and that’s how he saved Judaism. Don’t just show up to the Shabbos table when it’s time to light the candles or recite the kiddush. Cherish the nitty-gritty preparations necessary to make it all happen. Because in our relationship with G-d, “cleaning the dishes” is as valuable as “presenting the bouquet of roses.”


My Favorite Purim Mitzvah

Our sages taught: “The attitudes of your heart are influenced by your behaviors.”

Actions done ritualistically - even if done mindlessly - can change you. Similar to  exercise: even if you hate going to the gym, doing so ritualistically will certainly impact your health. The same is with Mitzvot. Giving charity every day will make you more compassionate; honoring your parents will make you more appreciative to anyone that does good for you and keeping Shabbat will help integrate faith in G-d into your everyday life.

Which brings me to Purim and my favorite Purim mitzvah. On Purim we celebrate the victory of the Jews over their worst enemy Haman - the man who came closest to annihilating the Jews. The festival is mostly known for masquerading, Hamantaschen and lively parties, but nothing in Judaism is random and there are four specific mitzvot we need to observe on Purim day. The purposes of three of them are quite familiar and self explanatory.

(1) Reading the Megillah once at night and once during the day of Purim is a familiar way for Jews to recall the tremendous miracles of the time. Reading the Book of Esther as it appears in a kosher scroll is crucial to connecting us to the story in a powerfully divine way.

(2) Feasting and dining is quite familiar to Jewish celebration as we do so every Shabbat and festival, and it makes sense for our rescue from genocide to be marked with unbridled celebration.

(3) We are obligated to give charity to at least two poor people on Purim. This follows a familiar pattern of Jewish observance which places a premium on Tzedakah, and ensuring that the poor have the means to celebrate the holidays is an essential obligation each festival.

The purpose of this final mitzvah needs clarification. (4) Mishloach Manot - sending gifts of food to a friend. Not an obligation to seek out a starving homeless person and give them a sandwich. Rather an obligation to share at least two ready-to-eat foods with a fellow Jew during the day of Purim. Why is that even considered a Mitzvah - an essential obligation of every Jewish man, woman and child on Purim?

When Haman schemed to kill all the Jews described the Jews to the king as “a single nation scattered and dispersed among the nations.” Not only did their expulsion from Israel geographically separate them from each other, they were internally divided as well. Marking them for extinction would not be a liability for the kingdom since no one cared about them and they don’t care about each other as well.

Haman was wrong. In response to his decree Jews around the world rallied together in their commitment to Judaism and subsequently vanquished their enemies. Mordechai and Esther enshrined this show of unity in the Purim festival observance by obligating us to share food with fellow Jews on Purim to nurture fellowship and camaraderie. The act itself - even mindlessly - does the trick.

Purim begins on Wednesday evening, March 16 and continues through Thursday at sundown. I encourage you to participate in the Megillah readings, the feasting and charitable giving, but please remember to give two ready-to-eat foods to a fellow Jew on Thursday, March 17, because this is the surest way to ensure that our unity that saved us from Haman continues forever.


Disrupted But Unbroken

On Monday hundreds joined Rabbi and Mrs. Wolff from Chabad of Odessa on Zoom to hear firsthand how their community was faring during wartime. They projected strong optimism that together with their community and the 120 children of their orphanage they could weather it out, but overnight the calculus changed. By Tuesday morning it became clear that if the carnage of Kherson and Kharkiv were an indication of what was in store for the rest of Ukraine’s urban cities, evacuation was the only viable option.

How do you evacuate over 100 children who only have birth certificates? The logistics were overwhelming but, against all odds, on Wednesday morning, two buses left Odessa transporting the entire Mishpacha Orphanage infrastructure to the border of Moldova. Chaperoned by my cousin Rabbi Mendy Wolff and his wife Mushky - both in their twenties - they traveled for 3 days through Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Czechia, arriving this morning in Berlin where they are setting up shop for the foreseeable future.

My entire extended family followed their harrowing journey in real time through their constant updates on a family WhatsApp chat group, and amazingly their spirits were high throughout. Each border crossing was miraculous, (ever tried getting a kid across multiple borders with just a pixelated black and white printout of their birth certificate?) and caring for such a diverse group of children - the youngest of whom is not even six weeks old - for 52 hours on the road is excruciating, but they did not stop smiling, singing and dancing.

This is just one story of so many others happening all around Ukraine as Chabad representatives there, and all along the escape routes, continue providing logistical, material and, most importantly, moral support to everyone and anyone they come in contact with.

In this week’s parsha the Torah states that when the Jews completed building the Mishkan (tabernacle) in the desert, a divine cloud filled it, demonstrating the presence of G-d in their handiwork. It then concludes, “When the cloud rose up from over the Mishkan, the children of Israel set out on all their journeys.”

This is odd because the story of the Israelite journeys through the desert is articulated in great detail later on in the Torah. Why was it necessary to describe the divine cloud leaving the Mishkan while describing the awesome experience of the Jews seeing it fill the Mishkan?

The lesson is that our mission of creating a divine dwelling is not limited to normal times when we are settled, but most importantly when life is disrupted and we are forced to move on to unknown destinations.

A little over a week ago the Jewish community of Ukraine was flourishing and growing, and it’s heartbreaking to think it can all disintegrate. But the first hand reports I’m hearing from friends and family on the ground tell a very different story. Although their conventional infrastructure is horrendously disrupted, it remains as robust as ever - albeit on the move. No one knows what the future holds for them but we know for certain that with the support of us all tucked safely away from the ravages of war, the Chabad infrastructure of Ukraine will continue to flourish wherever their next destination may be.

Please continue to pray on their behalf, do an extra mitzvah in their merit and support them as best as you can from afar. That’s what family is for. May we merit very soon to experience the dawn of redemption through Moshiach when war and suffering will cease and peace and tranquility will reign for all.

To donate please visit: https://bit.ly/OdessaRelief



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