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Rabbis' Blog

No Lonely Jew in the Lone Star State

 

Published in the Jewish Herald-Voice celebrating 50 years of Chabad in Texas

In the summer of 2005 I set out on a two-week tour of Southwest Texas with my friend Meir Kopel in search of fellow Jews as part of Chabad’s “Roving Rabbis” summer program. The program was established by the Rebbe in the early 1940s, sending rabbinical students all over the world to connect Jews with our glorious heritage.

Using El Paso as home base, Meir and I eventually arrived in the triangle of West Texas towns Marfa, Alpine, and Fort Davis without knowing what or who we would find. The handful of Jews we discovered were delighted to see us and while driving up the 90 back to the I-10, we listened to a recording of a farbrengen (chassidic gathering) the Rebbe held in the summer of 1971.

In one of the talks the Rebbe defined the ethics of Jewish leadership from an episode that occured with Moses. Before becoming the iconic 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,” the Rebbe explained. “This is what Jewish leadership is all about.”

It was a surreal and memorable experience to hear such a powerful description of the Rebbe’s raison d'être while serving as his emissaries to find “runaway” Jews in the Southwest Texas wilderness in the most tangible way.

On the 11th of Nissan 1972, close to a year after the recording we heard near Marfa, the Rebbe celebrated his 70th birthday and requested that seventy new Chabad institutions be established the following year. Rabbi Shimon and Chiena Lazaroff were dispatched to Texas to establish a permanent Chabad presence a month later. Over the next fifty years Chabad of Texas expanded spectacularly, but the essential mission remains the same: to connect with every individual Jew, regardless where they may run.

Thirty six years ago Rabbi Lazaroff sought to expand the Rebbe's work in the state with a permanent presence in El Paso. The Rebbe sent my parents, Rabbi Yisrael and Chana Greenberg and myself (as a three month old baby) to the western edge of Texas and my wife Shainy and I returned to join the team eleven year ago. To this day, while the big projects are exciting and essential, our proudest moments are the individual encounters and connections that embody the Rebbe’s “Moses-searching-for-the sheep” mission he entrusted to us all.

Here is one example. A woman from a remote Alaskan town called to notify us that her son Mike* had recently moved to El Paso. Over Shabbat dinner my father asked Mike if he knew his brother, Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, the Chabad Rabbi in Anchorage, Alaska who helped him wrap tefillin in honor of his Bar Mitzvah a decade earlier.

Mike admitted that he remembered doing something for his thirteenth birthday but could not recall the details of the ceremony, let alone the name of the officiating Rabbi. My father smiled and said, “You might forget about Judaism, but Judaism does not forget about you.” Months later Mike’s life was saved because, although we had not seen him since that Shabbat dinner, he knew to come to Chabad in a critical moment of need.

In celebration of Texas Chabad’s 50th birthday I invite you to join the team by ensuring that no Jew is ever forgotten or lonely, wherever they may be in the quarter of a million square miles of the Lone Star State.

 

 

Uvalde and me

There is no need for me to describe what happened in Uvalde this week nor how I feel about it because you already know it all. But I'd like to share some ideas I think about in the wake of such man-made tragedies - beyond mourning the victims and feeling solidarity with their loved ones - that may be helpful to others.

Judaism teaches that we must personally grow from everything we see or hear. How can I possibly become a better person after hearing 21 precious souls were gunned down in a school? Part of my instinctive reaction upon hearing about a mass shooting is to profile the perpetrator as someone I have no affiliation with whatsoever. I try to console my insulted and grieved humanity by declaring that such an evildoer was definitely insane and probably not even human. How can it be explained any other way?

Then I catch myself and remember the perpetrator was definitely human and insanity is a weak excuse for evil. So what went wrong? How is it possible for someone to do such horrible things?

Jewish tradition maintains that every person is born with two competing inner forces. One is the instinctive, survival force that motivates me to care for myself and succeed in life. The other force drives me to find meaning and purpose; to achieve goals greater than myself and make a positive impact on society.

Although one force is selfish and the other is selfless, both occupy my psyche and are constantly clashing. Every moral dilemma I face is the manifestation of these two inner forces pulling me in two opposite directions, and I alone must choose which inclination to follow. I cannot be blamed for my inner struggles, but I am certainly responsible for my choices. Most of the time the problem is not discerning right from wrong. More often than not the right choices are the harder ones and I need to choose selflessness over selfishness; divine awareness over self absorption.

In Genesis we learn how humanity started from one single person. The Talmud explains that G-d created one human being in the beginning to illustrate the preciousness of one single life and how important every individual’s choices are.

The consequences of these choices are usually not earth shattering, but the possibility for these inner struggles to morph into serious crises with far reaching consequences is very real. The more I train myself to make the right choices in the small, routine types of struggles, the more prepared I am to make the right choices when life shattering struggles hit hard.

A young man made a horribly selfish and evil choice this week, but I am neither judge nor jury and as a fellow human being I am left with the following questions. Am I making better choices in my personal struggles? Are my personal choices inspiring others to choose right over wrong and good over evil? Am I effectively educating my children to identify these struggles and to appreciate how relevant their choices are to G-d and society?

While I mourn with Uvalde and the relevant agencies find better ways to stop crime in the first place, I must certainly do more to ensure more people make the right choices more often than not and hopefully stop Uvalde from happening again.

 

Education is the key to pride

A few weeks ago I took my eldest children on a hike up the Franklin Mountains. Standing at the beginning of the trail and looking up at the top, one of them wondered if we would make it up there because it seemed so overwhelming. After some initial hesitation we started walking and before we knew it we were at the top.

The opening verse of this week’s parsha states that G-d spoke to Moshe at Mt. Sinai to communicate a host of laws. The mention of Mt. Sinai here seems unnecessary since all the Mitzvot recorded throughout the Torah were all communicated to Moshe at Mt. Sinai. Even more ironic is the fact that while the verse clearly states this communication happened at the famous mountain named Sinai, the name of this week’s parsha is simply “Behar - on the mountain.” Why not include “Sinai” in the parsha’s title?

The two words “mountain” and “Sinai” represent two opposite ideas. Mountains by definition are elevated - connoting pride and overbearance - but the specific mountain named Sinai was not known for its grandeur. Quite the contrary, Sinai was chosen by G-d to host the great revelation of Torah to the Jewish people specifically because it was humble and unassuming - integral character traits necessary to achieving personal spiritual perfection. In light of this it seems odd that a parsha would be named simply “mountain” - which connotes pride - without the important caveat that comes along with the word “Sinai.”

While humility is essential, there comes a time when confidence and pride should take center stage. On the first day of school every student enters feeling like they know nothing, but after studying for a while, fluency and confidence in the subject matter should replace their initial shyness. Retaining a healthy dosage of humility is crucial to being the best at anything you do, but it shouldn’t be the overarching trait of your professionalism. When you know what you're doing, you should be proud of it.

Torah is like a huge, towering mountain and just knowing there are 613 commandments can be overwhelming for anyone standing at the beginning of the trail. Reading the Five Books of Moses leaves one with more questions than answers since the details of most Mitzvot are cryptic to say the least. It makes you feel like a “Sinai Jew.”

But the Torah and all its 613 commandments define us as Jews, so there must be a way for every Jew to know them and own them. There must be a way to graduate from being “Sinai Jews” and become more pronounced “Mountain Jews.”

That’s why Maimonides gifted the Jewish world his Mishneh Torah - the most comprehensive encyclopedia of Jewish law to date - and the Sefer Hamitzvot - a concise counting of all 613 mitzvot. With brilliant clarity he provides every Jew the opportunity to become familiar with every aspect of Jewish law. Even without becoming an authority on Jewish law, Maimonides empowers every Jew to be proud of his or her heritage.

I invite you to join me on a year-long journey in studying the 613 Mitzvot with Maimonides. Register here to receive daily messages of links to a video and audio recording of the daily Maimonides study program I am offering this year, and become familiar with our awesome heritage.

From the smallest to the biggest

In America we have age milestones for many things. There is an age you can vote, marry, purchase alcohol, hold national public office and finally the age you need to be to become president. More close to home, often children wish they could make their own decisions about bedtime, meals and homework and the inevitable truth is that until they grow up we will be making those decisions for them. Until then, kids are just kids. Or are they?

This week’s parsha opens with a peculiar sentence. G-d tells Moshe “Speak to the Kohanim the sons of Aharon, and you shall tell them.” See the redundancy? Torah is typically succinct and brief in its expression. It would have been sufficient to state simply “Speak to the Kohanim.” Why the added “and you shall tell them?”

Before bringing the Talmudic answer to this question, it’s important to appreciate that our sages expressed profound ideas in the brilliant articulation of their sentences. With proper training one can analyze every line of Talmud and extract volumes of interpretations and lessons.

Regarding the above redundancy the sages said four Hebrew words: “Lehazhir hagdolim al haktanim.” The simple explanation of these words is that the purpose of the double expression in this case is “to admonish the adult Kohanim to be responsible for the children,” that they should be careful with the rules too.

In this context, the Hebrew word “Lehazhir” means to warn and admonish, and our sages’ teaching communicates the responsibility of adults to educate the children. However the same word can also mean “to illuminate and brighten,” and when read with this translation, the meaning of our sages’ teachings takes on a new angle: children, through their behavior, illuminate and inspire their elders to do even better.

So Jewish education is a two way street. Knowledge, direction and training comes from the elders, but the inspiration and joy can be best gleaned from the little ones.

Where am I going with all this? In 1984 the Rebbe started an annual campaign for every Jew to study the works of Maimonides - Mishneh Torah: a 14 volume comprehensive treatise on Jewish law in clear and concise language - a must read for every Jew. In fact, Maimonides clearly states in his introduction that this work is written in a way that should be understandable to the smallest and the biggest. The Torah novice, even a child, can appreciate it and the greatest scholar will never tire to uncover more nuance and depth in it. In addition Maimonides wrote a shorter work Sefer Hamitzvot detailing the basic ideas of all 613 mitzvot.

The Rebbe set forth a study cycle of Maimonides that included everyone, from the greatest scholars to the smallest children.

The annual Maimonides learning cycle begins this Thursday, May 19 (Lag B’omer). I encourage you to visit chabadelpaso.com/rambam to learn more about this special study opportunity and find which track works best for you. Tap into a study system that blends the experience of the elders and the inspiration and passion of the children.

 

Fulfilling Life’s Purpose

In the winter of 1986 a Jew living in Brooklyn was going through a serious family crisis. A friend suggested he seek advice from the Rebbe but at the time there were no official opportunities for people to interact privately with the Rebbe in person. While written correspondence was certainly an option he felt unable to adequately articulate the nuances of his problem in writing. Although this was not the standard procedure, his friend felt the problem was urgent enough to suggest that he approach the Rebbe outside his home in the morning on his way to “770” Lubavitch World Headquarters. No one would be within earshot and it would be the perfect opportunity.

Heeding his friend’s well intentioned advice, he made the short trip to Crown Heights and as the Rebbe walked toward the waiting car approached and quickly shared his dilemma. The Rebbe stopped, asked some questions and then advised and counseled him until he continued on his way - 10 minutes later!

A group of yeshiva students witnessed the entire exchange from afar and were horrified at this man’s audacity. The Rebbe’s time was extremely precious and to “hold him up” at such an unofficial venue for such a long time was unheard of. When one of them told off the fellow for his breach of protocol he felt terrible and rushed to write a letter to the Rebbe apologizing for his inappropriate use of the Rebbe’s time.

I will paraphrase the Rebbe's written response: The Baal Shem Tov taught that a soul can be sent down to this world to live 70-80 years just in order to do a single favor to another person. “It’s possible that the purpose of my entire life is in order to help you out in your current crisis. Why is this student interfering in my soul’s business?”

In this week’s parsha the Torah states “You shall love your fellow as yourself!” Rabbi Akiva declared this mitzvah is a fundamental or all-inclusive principle of the Torah and the great Hillel before him went further to say that all of Torah is a commentary on this mitzvah. Just as we prioritize our own needs above all else, we must care for another’s material and spiritual needs with the same passion and attention. 

Practically speaking, we will never know which specific favor is the purpose of our soul’s journey in this world. That’s why we need to utilize every opportunity that comes our way. A sage once asked someone running in the marketplace where he was rushing. “To make a living!” the man breathlessly replied. “How do you know your success will come to you in that direction, perhaps you are running away from your source of success which is the opposite direction?”

Even when rushing to keep up with the constant demands of life, be sensitive to your surroundings and make time to interact and help those you encounter who may not be on your official schedule. Who knows? Perhaps they hold the key to your purpose in life.

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