Rabbis' Blog

Fighting Darkness G-d's Way

In the beginning of G-d’s creation of Heaven and Earth, the earth was desolate and dark, and the divine spirit hovered above the waters. And G-d said “Let there be light, and there was light.”

Darkness is not new. It’s been part of our world’s narrative from the very beginning - and the first recorded divine action in the Torah is the fact that G-d created light.

Light and darkness are not two opposites of the same realm. If they were of the same kind, logic would dictate that one would need an equal amount of one to cancel out the other. But everyone knows this is not true. In a vast space filled with utter darkness one needs to only shine a single light and much of it will go away.

Light and dark are metaphors for good and evil and the opening narrative of our Torah teaches us all we need to know about battling every type of darkness. Identifying it is a start but fighting it on its terms is futile. The only way to banish darkness is G-d’s way, by introducing light.

A great sage once offered the following analogy. Three men were imprisoned in a dungeon and food was thrown down to them from the opening on top. In the pitch-black darkness it was very difficult to eat the food. Two of them managed to work it out while the third, no matter how hard he tried, could not find a way to eat. He sat and wailed from hunger while one of his fellow prisoners worked unsuccessfully to help him out. After a while he called out to the third prisoner and asked why he wasn’t helping their poor friend learn how to eat in the darkness to which he responded, “Fool, I’m trying to find a way out of this place!”

In the intended lesson both of them were wrong. Learning to live with the darkness is defeatist and trying to escape the inescapable is unrealistic. Bringing light into the darkness is the way to go.

The opening words of this week’s parsha reference the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two eldest sons of Aharon the High Priest. During the inauguration of the Tabernacle these lofty and sensitive souls were so overwhelmed by the divine revelation, their souls expired from their bodies. G-d warned Aharon and the rest of us that the saintly Nadav and Avihu are not to be emulated.

Although their deaths resulted from their overwhelming desire to be holy through escaping the coarse mundaneness of the physical world, G-d wants us to become holy through illuminating the dark world by introducing more light, not by escaping from it.

This happens when we do Mitzvot in this physical world. As Maimonides famously declared, every individual must view the world as equally balanced between good and evil. One single positive action, one positive spoken word and even a good thought can tip the balance and bring salvation to the world with the arrival of Moshiach who will rid our world of the age-old darkness of hatred, jealousy and apathy and usher in an era of global peace and tranquility for all.


The Moses Trait We Can All Adopt

 Rebbe - Charity 2.jpeg

In Jewish culture the traditional birthday wish is “till 120!” The famous Jewish leader Moses lived to be exactly 120 years old and his accomplishments and legacy indicate that when we wish each other the best in life, we intend for our lives to be meaningful and impactful as well.

In modern times, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson is my ultimate example of a Moses persona, and Tuesday, April 12 will mark his 120th birthday. I find the similarities between these two great leaders striking.

Just as Moses was a master teacher, the Rebbe educated generations of disciples to understand Jewish tradition, life and the ways of the world with profound depth. Like Moses who shepherded a nation during a difficult transformational period by caring for their every need, the Rebbe assumed personal responsibility for the global Jewish community within a decade of the most traumatic and destructive events in Jewish history. But there is one specific episode I believe frames Moses’ leadership and enlightens a unique aspect of the Rebbe’s life work, which in turn can empower each one of us to be somewhat like Moses.

Prior to becoming the Israelite leader Moses worked as a shepherd and one day noticed one scrawny little sheep went missing. He searched high and low until he found it standing next to a stream of water and returned it to the flock. At that moment he noticed the miraculous sight of a thorn bush ablaze without being consumed and as he approached to investigate, G-d spoke with him and sent him on a mission to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. The rest is history.

This story illustrates how Moses was only granted the mantle of leadership once he displayed a tremendous dedication to even one single, seemingly insignificant, sheep. Making decisions based on the benefit of the majority has its place, but the core of leadership must be the appreciation that every individual is an entire universe. No one is extra and no one is dispensable.

As an ardent student of the Rebbe’s teachings and the history of his life I find this to be a recurring theme. He taught that every individual has an inherent spark of goodness which can and should be nurtured. Everything in this world has a divine purpose to be valued and respected. And most importantly, we all have an integral role to play in making our world a more peaceful and better place.

His focus on education was legendary. Beyond establishing numerous educational institutions all over the world, with his own behavior the Rebbe personified the consummate educator by engaging even the smallest children to do good. Before entering the synagogue for prayer services or walking down the street he would hand coins to children within reach for them to place into the nearby charity box, empowering them to do an act of kindness.

Education is not about preparing legions of potential participants in the workforce, the Rebbe insisted. Rather the essential and thrilling mission of empowering every individual child to live a life of purpose and higher meaning, with an awareness of his or her accountability to G-d and society. To have the necessary tools to navigate the often difficult moral dilemmas he or she will inevitably encounter, and to make the right choices.

This is why America observes Education and Sharing Day each year on the Rebbe’s birthday (four days before Passover) and I am so grateful El Paso’s leadership participated by issuing proclamations dedicating April 12 as Education and Sharing Day. It is a day for us to reflect on how we can be a bit like Moses and care for the spiritual and moral welfare of even one single child. To cherish and value even one single good action, knowing that goodness breeds more goodness and our accumulated good deeds will usher in an era of global peace and tranquility.

The Birth Paradox

This Shabbat coincides with Rosh Chodesh (first day of the Jewish month) Nissan and during synagogue services we will read from three Torahs! In the first we read the weekly parsha of Tazria (from the Book of Leviticus), in the second we read about the sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple in honor of Rosh Chodesh (from the Book of Numbers) and the final reading known as “Hachodesh'' (from the Book of Exodus) establishes the mechanics of the Jewish calendar and contains instructions about the Paschal Lamb and the observance of Pesach. We read about it this week to prepare for the upcoming festival of Pesach.

Although each one of these three portions are in different books and read this week for independent reasons, G-d’s perfect world doesn’t tolerate randomness and there is certainly a common message between them.

One commonality I find in all three is the idea of birth. Parshat Tazria opens with the laws of childbirth, a Jewish new month begins with the “birth” of the new moon, and “Hachodesh” contains the laws of the Jewish calendar anchored on the monthly “moon births” as well as the preparations for, and the annual commemorations of, the Israelite exodus from Egypt referred to by the prophet Ezekiel as the birth of the Jewish nation.

Birth is a paradox because it’s so miraculous (an experienced doctor once expressed to me we know almost nothing about how it works) and yet so common and natural, and it’s uniquely joyful as well as unfathomably painful - so I am told. And like birth, the Jewish calendar and the redemption from Egypt we celebrate on Pesach contain the same paradoxes.

The Jewish calendar is paradoxically characterized by the lunar months and uniquely anchored by the seasons of the solar year. The moon’s fluctuating brightness can be compared to unpredictable miracles and the consistent brightness of the sun represents the eternal stability of nature. The twilight zone after the moon wanes into oblivion produces a painful darkness supplanted by the joy of its “birth” as the slender crescent emerges into view.

The redemption from Egypt was paradoxically miraculous to the extreme and at the same time introduced an eternal and predictable freedom forever embedded in our nature. Whereas the joy of redemption was immeasurable, it was preceded by unprecedented oppression and torture.

So where does this leave us? Our identity as Jews is characterized by the paradox of birth. We are mandated and empowered to elevate and inspire the mechanical tediousness of nature with the miraculous transcendence of divinity. Every nugget of Torah we study and every mitzvah we do introduces another flash of light into the darkness of our mundane world.

And although the going is rough and excruciatingly dark, be encouraged by the knowledge that just as labor pains are naturally followed by the exhilarating joy of new life, our current reality is temporary and the joy of the ultimate redemption through Moshiach is imminent, when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

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