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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat - Tazriya-Metzora

Someone asked me an interesting question this week. This is a direct quote: 

“Hello Rabbi:  How can tzara’at show on the garment? Is it the same resemblance as on the person? White color etc...? Just wondering while studying today’s daily section of Torah.”

This excellent question is based on the laws of Tzara’at, which is usually translated as leprosy, except it’s not. During the time when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, if a person had a mark on his or her skin, if it met certain criteria, including color, size discolored hair and other details given in this week’s Parsha, that person had the disease of Tzara’at and entered a state of “Tum’ah” – ritual impurity. This person had to stay outside of the city until cured. It’s not leprosy because there is also Tzara’at on a garment or cloth, and even on a house. So what kind of disease is this? The Rambam discusses this question in his “Mishne Torah.” Here is then answer in Rambam’s words (Laws of Tzara’at 16:10):

(“He means “he or she,” “him” means “him or her,” and “man” means “man or woman.”)

Tzara'at is a collective term including many afflictions that do not resemble each other. For the whitening of a person's skin is called tzara'at, as is the falling out of some of the hair of his head or beard, and the change of the color of clothes or houses.

This change that affects clothes and houses which the Torah described with the general term of tzara'at is not a natural occurrence. Instead it is a sign and a wonder prevalent among the Jewish people to warn them against lashon hora, "undesirable speech." When a person speaks lashon hora, the walls of his house change color. If he repents, the house will be purified. If, however, he persists in his wickedness until the house is destroyed, the leather implements in his house upon which he sits and lies change color. If he repents, they will be purified. If he persists in his wickedness until they are burnt, the clothes he wears change color. If he repents, they will be purified. If he persists in his wickedness until they are burnt, his skin undergoes changes and he develops tzara'at. This causes him to be isolated and for it to be made known that he must remain alone so that he will not be involved in the talk of the wicked which is folly and lashon hora.

The Torah warns about this, stating Deuteronomy 24:8-9: "Take care with regard to a tzara'at blemish.... Remember what God your Lord did to Miriam."Now, this is what the Torah is implying: Contemplate what happened to the prophetess Miriam. She spoke against her brother. She was older than he was; she had raised him; and she had endangered herself to save him from the sea. She did not speak pejoratively of him; she merely erred in equating him with the other prophets. Moses did not object to any of this, as Numbers 12:3 relates: "And the man Moses was exceedingly humble." Nevertheless, she was immediately punished with tzara'at. Certainly, an inference can be made with regard to the wicked and foolish men who speak extensively about great and wondrous matters. Therefore, a person who seeks to structure his course of conduct should distance himself from their gatherings and from speaking to them so that he will not become caught up in the web of their wickedness and foolishness.

This is the path followed by the gathering of wicked fools: In the beginning, they speak excessively about empty matters, as Ecclesiastes 5:2 states: "The talk of a fool is characterized by a multitude of words." As a result of this, they come to speak negatively of the righteous, as reflected by the verse Psalms 31:19: "May the lying lips be silenced; those which speak falsehood about a righteous man." As a consequence, they will become accustomed to speaking against the prophets and casting aspersions on their words, as reflected by the verse II Chronicles 36:16: "They would abuse the messengers of God, scorn His words, and mock His prophets." And this would lead them to deny God's existence entirely, as reflected in the verse II Kings 17:9: "And the children of Israel spoke in secret things that were not true against God, their Lord."

In this vein, Psalms 73:9 states: "They set their mouths against Heaven and their tongues strut on earth." What caused them to "set their mouths against Heaven"? Their tongues which previously were given free reign on earth. This is the speech of the wicked that is caused by loitering on the street corners, frequenting the assemblies of commoners, and spending time at the parties of drunkards.

In contrast, the speech of proper Jewish people concerns words of Torah and wisdom. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, assists them and grants them merit because of it, as Malachi 3:16 states: "Then those who fear God conversed, each person with his fellow and God listened and paid heed. And a book of remembrance was composed before Him for those who fear God and contemplate His name."

One of the things we learn from all of this is that the physical world is not always as it seems, and there is much more than our eye sees. In fact, this idea of “what is reality?” is the subject of the new JLI course “What Is?” that starts this Wednesday, April 25. We will go on a fascinating journey exploring what reality is, are we and the world real, and many other existential questions. This course will help expand our understanding of reality, of the universe and of life. You can try the first lesson free with no obligation, just please let us know you are coming. For more details please click here and here. I hope to see you there.

Parshat - Shemini

 Pesach ended a week ago and we are headed into the summer.  This is a good time to think about what lessons we have learned from Pesach and what we can take from the great festival into the year.  It would be a shame if all the energy that we put into Pesach, the preparation, the change of kitchen, the Matzah, wine and all the other special foods, two Seders and so much more, not to mention the expense, did not make a difference in our lives and move us at least a little higher spiritually.  Of course every Mitzvah is a Mitzvah in itself, so it is never lost, but it would seem like there should also be a lasting effect from such a great event.

The answer might be found in the Parsha that we read this week, Shemini.  The word Shemini means “eighth.”  When the Jews were traveling in the desert, they built a portable sanctuary, the Mishkan, in which to bring offering to Hashem.  The service was complicated and required a lot of training for the Kohanim (loosely translated as priests), at that time Aharon and his four sons, so for seven days Moshe showed them what to do, as we read in the previous Parsha. This week’s Parsha opens with the events of the eighth day, when Aharon and his sons started doing the service, and for the first time a fire came down from heaven to consume the offerings, signifying the revelation of Hashem’s presence.  

We can wonder why it is called the eighth day.  Eighth implies that is a continuation of what came before.  In this case, the seven days prior were just training days and preparation, and this was the first day that the real service was done by the Kohanim, so it should be called the first day.  Many commentaries discuss this question, and one answer given by the great sage Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619) in his book “Kli Yakar” that is printed in many chumashim, is that the number seven relates to mundane, worldly matters, and the number eight connotes the supernatural.  There are seven days in a week, related to the seven human emotions (see an explanation here), and also related to the seven divine attributes of creation.  Eight represents that which is above creation, and that is why, for example, the Bris (circumcision) is on the eighth day after birth, because the Bris is a covenant with Hashem that is above logic and above understanding, which endures no matter how a person lives his life.  If you think about it, however, according to this explanation the question becomes even stronger.  The natural and the supernatural are two different levels which seemingly are not connected, so why would the supernatural be the eighth?  it is a completely different dimension, not part of the count of seven that is the natural.

Chassidus explains that the whole point of the Sanctuary is to bring together the natural and the supernatural.  When Hashem’s presence was revealed, it affected the world and lifted us to a higher level in our own day to day activities.  So although it is a higher dimension, we call it the eighth, because the purpose of the revelation is to be connected to the seven and permeate the natural world with holiness.

Perhaps this is what we should take from Pesach.  Pesach is an uplifting time, with all the beautiful observances that I outlined before.  It is important that we don’t allow the inspiration to dissipate, allowing the feelings and inspiration to stay separate from our day to day life.  The message of Pesach is freedom from those things that limit us in our growth and the expression of our true selves, the core of our being, our Neshama (divine soul).  By infusing our everyday life with this concept, by considering how we can harness the mundane for a higher purpose, we fuse the natural and the supernatural, and the Pesach spirit continues throughout the year.  On a practical level, this means not to allow days and weeks go by just going with the flow and allowing the maelstrom of daily activities carry us without thinking about our mission.  Make every day meaningful, and use the recent Pesach spirit to make this year more meaningful than the one before, by doing another Mitzvah, either adding an additional Mitzvah or by doing a Mitzvah with additional excitement and with enhanced observance.  If we do this not just because we want to do good, but in order to connect to Hashem by fulfilling His will, then we will have a complete eight, the seven days of regular life infused with the spirit of Hashem.

Parshat - Yizkor

This week we have a phenomenon that occurs from time to time on Festivals.  When Friday is Yomtov (a holiday) as this Friday, the seventh day of Passover is, we have a problem cooking and preparing for Shabbat. Since we are not allowed to cook on Shabbat, all cooking must be done the day before. On the other hand, while we are permitted to cook on a holiday using a pre-existing flame, we may only do so for the day itself, not for the next day. So how do we prepare for Shabbat when Friday is a holiday?

 

The answer is that there are two levels of prohibition relating to preparing on a holiday for the next day. There is a Biblical prohibition to prepare if the food will not be ready for consumption on the day itself. However this Biblical prohibition does not apply if the food would be available on the day of the Holiday, regardless of the intention to actually use it on that day. So technically a person could cook a meal for 100 people on the Holiday, as long as the food is ready on that day, even if there is no intention to actually consume it until later. 

 

 

 

However in order to protect the sanctity of the Holiday, recognizing human nature that people may use the day off from work to cook up a storm and forget about the holiness of the day, the sages established a “fence”.  They prohibited any cooking or other preparation that is not specifically intended for use on the holiday itself.  However when the holiday is in a Friday, this fence would make it impossible to prepare for Shabbat.  The sages therefore set up another way for us to remember the sanctity of the day while preparing for Shabbat. That is called “Eruv Tavshilin.”  We set aside a Matzah and a cooked food like an egg before the Holiday and set it aside to be eaten on Shabbat. The Eruv reminds us that the only reason we are allowed to prepare for the next day is because it is Shabbat, and it also reminds us that we need to remember on the Holiday to leave some food for Shabbat.  We are then permitted to cook and prepare on Friday for Shabbat, as long as we fulfill the Biblical requirement to have all the food ready for consumption on the Holiday, before Shabbat begins at sunset. 

 

 

 

 

The Eruv needs to be made before sunset on Thursday.  You can find the Eruv Tavshilin procedure here.   

 

 

 

While on Pesach we celebrate our Exodus from Egypt, the last day of Pesach is dedicated to the future Messianic redemption from the current exile. In fact, the culmination of the Holiday is celebrated at Chabad with a festive meal, including four cups of wine, known as Moshiach’s Feast. I invite you to join us at Chabad for this meal on Shabbat late afternoon. We hope and pray that we will celebrate this meal not just as a hope for the future but in real time with Moshiach, post redemption!  

 

Parshat - Pesach

The Seder! What a wonderful opportunity for the family to get together, to celebrate, eat and drink, and to pass on our traditions to the next generation. When done right, it can be the most memorable night of the year, and a major factor in helping our children learn, follow and love our Torah and heritage. It takes a lot to prepare the Seder. In addition to the cooking and table set up, preparing the house, etc., there is all the Pesach preparation. Getting rid of all the Chametz, putting away the dishes and regular food, taking out the Pesach dishes, buying all the special foods and so much more. And then we sit down to the Seder. Tired, exhausted, wiped out, perhaps nervous and a little short-tempered. We get so caught up in the mechanics of the Seder, that we forget the main Mitzvah of the night. Of course we need to eat matzah and bitter herbs and drink four cups of wine, but there is a special Mitzvah this particular night that the Torah tells us: “You shall tell your children on that day… that Hashem… took us out of Egypt.”

As Rabbi Yosef Jacobson, a great orator, speaker and writer, has said on several occasions, we must remember that this is the one night that there is a special commandment to speak to our children. If we are to fulfill this Mitzvah properly, we must be rested and calm, we must get into their world. We need to hear their questions and listen to what they are saying. In fact, the Mitzvah is for them to ask and for us to answer. While education, the most important part of our tradition, requires us to always be there for our children, on the Seder night that is the entire emphasis. 

People are always looking for ways to make the Seder meaningful, and often they come up with all kinds of creative and often random ideas designed to keep the children’s attention. Perhaps the most important way to get their attention is to really be there for them and listen and discuss, on the child’s level. The traditional Haggadah is full of beautiful stories and thoughts that can keep a child mesmerized. The Seder (which means order) that was established by our sages has been designed specifically to touch the mind and soul of our children. If presented properly with love, patience and attention, it can be as I said before, a memorable and life long experience.

We still have some hand baked Shmurah matzah available. Eating that matzah is the way to fulfill the Biblical requirement to eat matzah on the first night of Pesach. Please contact us if you would like to join a Seder at Chabad.  I wish you a Kosher and Happy Pesach. 

Parshat - Tzav Shabbat Hagadol

The Shabbat before Pesach is called “Shabbat Hagadol” – the Great Shabbat.  Why such a great name?  This dates back to the Shabbat before the Jews left Egypt.  It was the tenth of the month of Nissan, and Hashem told the Jewish people to take a lamb and tie it to their beds, to keep it there for four days, and then on the 14th to slaughter it.  They were to put some of the blood on the doorposts and roast the lamb and eat it with matzah and bitter herbs, in preparation for their redemption the next day, after the plague of the death of the firstborns.  The Egyptians worshipped lambs, so this was quite a gutsy thing for the Jews to do, to tie the Egyptian god to their beds.  The Jews did it nevertheless, and when the Egyptians asked them what they were doing, they explained that in four days they would slaughter the sheep, because Hashem was going to kill all the firstborns and get the Jews out of Egypt.  The Egyptian firstborns really took this seriously.  They had experienced the previous nine plagues, so they had every reason to believe that this one would happen too.  They tried to get Pharaoh to let the Jews go, and when he refused, they started a civil war, and many Egyptians died in the battle.  This was a great miracle and that’s how the Shabbat got its name. 

One could ask, many other great miracles happened over the years.  The splitting of the Red Sea, Chanukah, Purim and many others, yet we don’t name those days “great.”  What is it about this miracle that makes it so great that the day it happened is known as the Great Shabbat?  The question is even greater.  What benefit exactly did the Jews get from this miracle?  They continued to be slaves until the fifteenth of the month, and nothing changed for them.  They weren’t even really involved in the miracle, except telling the Egyptians why they tied a sheep to their beds.  So, what was so great about the Egyptians fighting each other?

The answer lies in the definition of a miracle.  We think of a miracle as something supernatural, the breakdown of nature.  Water naturally flows, so when the water of the sea stood up like walls and allowed the Jews to pass through a dry seabed, that is a miracle.  But there is an even greater kind of miracle, and that is when we see that Hashem controls nature itself, that there really is nothing apart from Hashem, and that all of nature is created by and controlled by Hashem.  This is especially striking when there is a complete turnaround, when that which stands in opposition to holiness and G-dliness revelation becomes a tool for its revelation.  This is what happened on this great day.  Egypt stood in defiance of Hashem.  Pharaoh declared that he did not know G-d and refused to accept His commands.  The firstborns of the country were its strength and leadership, and they turned against him and demanded that he obey Hashem and let the Jews go.  This was the beginning of the final breakdown of the forces of evil, leading to the great Divine miracle of the redemption. 

https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gifThis miracle was brought about by the Jewish people’s act of sacrifice, following Hashem’s command to take the Egyptian deity and tie it to their beds.  They disregarded the danger inherent in this act, and fearlessly did what Hashem wanted.  The lesson to us is that the darkness of the world cannot stand in the way of goodness and light.  When we follow Hashem’s will, the world itself will support our activities and the darkness itself will turn into light.

Please let us know if we can help you with any of your Pesach needs.  A Seder, hand-baked matzah (we have a small amount left), a wide array of haggadot, Kiddush cups, Eliyahu’ s cups, Matzah plates and covers, and lots more.  I wish you a kosher and happy Pesach. 

Parshat - Vayikra Rosh Chodesh Hachodesh

This week we use three Torahs for the Torah reading. In the first Torah, we read Parshat Vayikra, which teaches about the various animal offerings that were made in the Holy Temple. Some were for atonement of sin, and others as a voluntary gift.  Each has its own requirements, what kind of animals, birds or flour and water combinations can be used. In the second Torah, we read the special portion for Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, since this is the first day of the month of Nissan. In the third Torah, we read Parshat Hachodesh, teaching us to follow the lunar calendar and that Nissan should be counted as the first month, as well as the laws of the Pesach lamb offering, as I wrote last week.

The first day of the month of Nissan is a unique day on our calendar. Many great things happened on that day, and our sages described as a day that “took ten crowns.” Among other things, it is the day the Mishkan - Sanctuary - was dedicated in the Sinai desert, the first time the Presence of Hashem was seen there in the form of a fire that came down from heaven to consume the offerings, and it is considered the “beginning of creation” in the sense that spirituality and the miraculous were revealed in this month, beginning with the Exodus. The name of the month, Nisan, is relayed to the word Nissim, which means miracles. The Talmud says that if a person sees the word Nissan in a dream, it means that “nisei nissim” - miracles upon miracles - will happen to him or her.

So this Shabbat, we are reminded that there is more to the world than what meets the eye. It is time when the air is filled with a supernatural spirit. It is an auspicious time when our soul is strengthened and it is easier for us to rise above our natural tendencies and habits and move to a new spiritual level.

Practically speaking, if a person has been thinking of taking a step forward in connecting to Hashem, perhaps committing to a new Mitzvah or enhancing the observance of one we already do, this is a great time to act on our thoughts. May we all be blessed with a “kosher and happy Pesach", one of spiritual growth with the freedom for our soul to soar. 

Parshat - Vayakhel Pekudai-Parah

Greetings from Jerusalem. I came with the JLI (Jewish Learning Institute) Land and Spirit trip. There are 11 people in our group, and altogether from all over the world there are close to 800. Today we went to see the site of the temporary Sanctuary in Shiloh and then to the permanent site of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  I am sitting now in a restaurant just outside of the Old City where we got together with several of our friends who lived in Palo Alto and are now in Israel, spending a wonderful evening together. As always, being in Israel is a meaningful, uplifting experience, and this time it was especially meaningful to be at the sites of the Sanctuary and the Temple during the week when we read in the Torah about the setting up of the Sanctuary in the parshas of Vayakhel and Pekudai. 

In addition to the regular parshas of Vayakhel and Pekudai, we use a second Torah to read the portion called “Parshat Parah,” which contains the laws of the Red Heifer that was used to purify a person who had touched a corpse, rendering him or her unfit to eat the meat of the Pesach sacrifice.  This Parsha is always read the week before  “Parshat Hachodesh,” which tells us the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, to remind us of the obligation to purify ourselves in preparation for Pesach.  Although Parshat Hachodesh is a week away, this Shabbat we say the blessing for the new month of Nisan that begins next Shabbat, and I could not help think of the Parshat Hachodesh spirit as I was walking to the Kotel this evening, as I will soon explain.  In addition to the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, Parshat Hachodesh also deals with the Mitzvah of establishing the month of Nisan as the first month, and setting the Jewish calendar by the lunar cycle. This Parsha is always read on the Shabbat before the beginning of Nisan, or, as is the case this year, on the Shabbat that is the first day of the month. 

As I have written before, Nisan is the first month even though the beginning of the year is Tishrei, six months earlier. The reason is because while Tishrei is the anniversary of the creation of the physical world, Nisan is the anniversary of the beginning of Divine revelation in the world. Since our mission as Jews is to bring harmony between the physical and the spiritual and to transform the world into a home for Hashem, Nisan is rightfully the first month. 

It seems a little easier to relate to this concept in the Holy Land and especially in the holy city of Jerusalem. I look forward to the day, which we expect imminently, when Jerusalem will Not only be the home of the site of the Temple, but the site of the Temple itself, rebuilt in all its glory by Mashiach. Our sages taught that just as the redemption from Egypt was in Nisan, so will the final redemption by Mashiach be in Nisan. Let’s hope it happens now, we are after all blessing the month of Nisan already. Among other things it will save me the trip back. 

Parshat - Purim

Happy Purim! Purim is not a time to read long megillas (except the real one), so I just want to briefly review the special observances that we do on Purim. After the great miracle when all the Jews were saved from a real and seemingly unstoppable threat of annihilation, our sages instituted the day of Purim to celebrate, remember and take lessons in our own lives from the events that happened then.

In order to remember the story, there is an obligation for every man and woman to hear the megilla read in the original Hebrew both on the eve of Purim (Wednesday), and during the day (Thursday). We offer several readings at Chabad.

We celebrate with a festive feast on the day of Purim, Thursday, usually toward evening. Chabad offers great opportunities to really enjoy this event.

In order to counteract Haman’s accusation that the Jews are “spread out and divided,” there are two special Mitzvot that we observe on this day (Thursday).  These are both very easy Mitzvot to fulfill, and also perhaps the most important, since they promote Jewish unity.  One is Mishloach manot, which is to give at least two kinds of readily edible food and/or drink to at least one friend. Customarily we give to at least three people. 

The other is to give gifts of money to at least two poor Jewish people. If you don’t personally know any poor people, you can give it to a fund that distributes the money, ideally on the day of Purim itself. I have a special fund for this purpose. I distribute 100% of the money I receive directly to several needy people on Purim, and it does not go through our regular budgeting process. Please call the office 650-424-9800 if you would like to contribute to this fund.

There is also a special Torah reading for Purim, and the addition of the “al hanissim” prayer in the services and Bentching (blessing after the meal).

Happy Purim! I hope you will join us! 

Parshat - Adar Terumah

Its two weeks before Purim, the first day of Rosh Chodesh (beginning-of-the-month of) Adar.  The month of Adar is a happy one.  The Talmud says that when Adar comes in we should increase our joy.  This joy goes back to the great miracle of Purim when Haman’s (and his cohorts’) decree to wipe out all the Jews was completely overturned, and the Jews were able instead to annihilate their enemies, which they did.  Not because they wanted to fight, but because they knew they had no alternative and needed to protect themselves.  The miracle was so great and the joy so intense that the month became a month of joy for all time.  Actually the joy of the month goes back much farther.  It was on the seventh of this month that Moshe was born, and in fact our Sages taught that this played a role in the redemption.  Haman, who understood mysticism, knew that Moshe died on the seventh of Adar, and therefore felt that the Jewish “mazal” – spiritual strength – would be weaker during this month, but he didn’t realize that Moshe was also born on that day, and therefore the mazal is stronger.  All of this shows us that there are higher forces at play than what we know and see, and this also helps us, perhaps, answer a question that many ask:  How can you tell me to be happy?  Psychologists say that when people who are unhappy are told to be happy, it makes them even more unhappy, even inducing guilt feelings.  I’m supposed to be happy, why am I so sad? 

Setting aside clinical depression, which is a medical illness and should be treated as such, the key to happiness is attitude.  I’m not going to presume to be able to provide the key to happiness in one paragraph, and it is certainly a very complicated matter that is different for each person, but it is safe to say that attitude is the most important factor in happiness.  If I look at the world in one dimension, All I see is what is in front of my eyes and all I hear is what enters my ears.  I have no context for what is happening except what I experience on the physical plane.  Then what I experience as bad is bad, what’s frightening frightens me, what seems unfair hurts me, and when things are not going exactly the way I planned, I get upset.  If, however, I realize that what I see is only a tiny part of reality, that there is a loving, benevolent Creator Who runs things and there is a purpose to everything, then what is bad must have a positive purpose, what is frightening need not frighten me because I put my trust in Hashem, and what seems subjectively to me to be unfair may actually be exactly the fairest thing to happen to me, for a benefit and purpose that I may not see or experience in my immediate material surroundings.

When we remember that the most powerful man in Achashverosh’s government was not able to follow through on his plan, because Hashem protected us, we realize that what happens is not in the control of any individual, regardless of how strong or capable.  (This does not include our personal decisions to act well or not, for that we have free choice.)  If we can give up our illusion of control of our circumstances and put our trust in Hashem that he does what is best for us and cares about us, we let go of fear, anger and sadness and can be truly happy even in the face of adversity.

This is also the theme of this week’s Parsha, Terumah, where Hashem tells Moshe to tell the people to “make for me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell within them.  As our sages interpret this verse, each of us should make ourselves and our homes a sanctuary for Hashem, and He will dwell within each of us.  When we recognize that everything we have or touch can be used for a higher purpose, this can bring us great joy, pulling us out of our little bubble and connecting us to something eternal.

Parshat - Shevat Mishpatim Shekalim

 “If you see your enemy’s donkey crouching under its load, [don't think] you may refrain from helping him, you shall surely help him.”  This is a positive mitzvah in our Parsha. Why your enemy’s donkey?  What about your friends. Of course it does not mean exclusively your enemy’s. In addition to the basic meaning that it applies even to your enemy, the Halacha is that if you see two people whose animals are crouching under their load, and one is your enemy, you are obligated to help the enemy first. Rambam explains that this is in order to curb our evil inclination and overcome our feelings of animosity.

Now we must clarify that the Torah is not discussing an enemy who want to destroy us or an anti-Semite. It is talking about a member of the community whom we hate. In general we are not allowed to hate a fellow Jew. There are exceptions, for example a person on the same spiritual level who has wantonly committed an egregious sin and even after being reminded and corrected several times, he continues to transgress. Under those circumstances it is ok to hate that person.

Nevertheless the Torah tells us that we must help him unload his overloaded animal, and to choose to help him over another person.  Because the hatred may not be for the person, it is for the action. If we harbor negative feelings toward another, that is something that we need to fix, because the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael applies to everyone without exception. One of the ways the Torah teaches us this is by requiring us to help that person. We do it because Hashem commended it, and we remember that whatever personal feelings we may have, the true essence of a person is the soul, and on that level we are all one.

Parshat - Shevat Yitro

The Jews were in the desert.  They had just received the Torah.  Moshe had brought down the Tablets, broken them and brought a second set of Tablets.  Now it was time to settle down and teach the people the Torah in depth.  In addition to learning the laws of the Torah, there were disputes that had to be settled.  The Torah contains rules and guidance not only for ritual laws like Shabbat, kosher and blessings, etc., but also a complete set of rules of conduct in business and day-to-day life.  If a dispute arises between people, the Torah tells us how it should be handled.  So now that Moshe returned to be with the people, he immediately begins to teach them Torah, and to adjudicate the business issues that have arisen.  Moshe’s father in law is concerned.  He tells Moshe that he will not be able to handle this.  “You will wither away, you and all the people.”  It’s too much for one person to handle this great load.  So he suggests that Moshe delegate the work to judges, and advises a structure of lower courts and higher courts.  Moshe consults with Hashem and agrees to do it.   

This week’s Parsha is named “Yitro”, after Moshe’s father in law.  The translation of the name means “addition”, and our sages taught that he was given this name (he had eight names) because he added a Parsha in the Torah – the one we just discussed.  So there are two questions here:  what was Moshe thinking?  He obviously felt that it was Hashem’s will for him to personally deal with all the Torah questions, including those pertaining to people’s personal lives, but how would he be able to hold up?  On the other hand, Yitro was obviously correct, and in fact is considered the one who “added a Parsha” to the Torah, meaning it was Hashem’s will and became part of Torah.  So why was Yitro the one who figured it out and not Moshe? 

Chassidus gives a beautiful answer, and I will just briefly give a short synopsis.  Moshe knew that nobody would be able to transmit the Torah, including the judgments between people, like he could.  He was the one who heard the Torah directly first hand from Hashem, and anyone else would be teaching it second hand.  Because of who he was and the power of his personal involvement, he knew that Hashem would protect him and give him the strength needed to overcome any physical challenges and not let him wither.  It was in fact true that when the people were in Moshe’s presence, they were elevated to a higher level, and the impact of Moshe’s words was greater than any other person could have had. 

However, Yitro saw another side of the people.  He saw them when they were not in front of Moshe, and he understood that Moshe’s influence would not necessarily last when they were not in his presence, because their level of holiness was not the same.  So Yitro suggested to Moshe that he create a system of judges that would be closer to the people’s level, who would inspire the people in their day-to-day activities and their interpersonal dealings.  This way, he felt, Moshe’s influence would be more permanent, because the Torah would permeate the people on their own level, rather than them being overwhelmed by Moshe’s presence, a feeling that was unsustainable.  Hashem agreed, because that was the way to ensure the continuity of Torah and its observance in all situations.

So Yitro added a Parsha in the Torah, meaning that he brought Torah to an additional level of observance.  Moshe inspired the people, and Yitro showed how to ensure that the inspiration would continue without his presence.  I think there are two lessons here.  First, that we should look to our great leaders for inspiration and try to connect to them in order to elevate ourselves from the mundane and touch something higher.  Second, that Hashem wants us to stand on our own two feet, to get to the point where our connection to Hashem expresses who we are on our level, not just as an external inspiration. 

 

Parshat - Shevat Beshalach

This week we read the story of the Splitting of the Sea.  As in all the stories in the Torah, there are many details that are only discussed in the Oral Torah.  In fact, the written Torah contains a tiny fraction of the story, with many hints and allusions to the vast oral tradition.  An example of this is the story in the Talmud of Nachshon ben Aminadav, the head of the tribe of Judah.  The Jews were trapped with the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind them and nowhere to go.  Moshe prayed to Hashem, and Hashem says: don’t shout to me, tell the people to journey.  When Nachshon heard this, he took it literally and started walking into the water.  When he was in up to his neck, the sea split and the Jews went into the dry seabed.  This courageous act of Nachshon Ben Aminadav, the willingness to follow Hashem’s commands without any regard to the natural obstacles being faced, has provided inspiration for Jews in all generations to disregard all dangers that may stand in the way of our adherence to Torah and Hashem’s Mitzvot.

Tonight and tomorrow, (Thursday night and Friday) is the tenth of Shevat, a day connected to two giants in Jewish leadership who personified Nachshon’s ideal.  The Soviet Union tried to crush any trace of Jewish life, and there seemed to be no way to keep Judaism alive.  Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneerson, whose Yartzeit (anniversary of passing) is on the tenth of Shevat, was the one Jewish leader who stood up against the regime, against all odds, creating underground schools, synagogues, Mikvahs and other Jewish life events.  He risked his own life and that of his followers, but when we read the stories of his life we see that it wasn’t that he was taking a calculated risk.  Just like Nachshon, when Hashem gave a command the Rebbe saw no other way.  And today the Soviet Union is no more and Judaism is flourishing.  

His son-in-law Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson accepted the leadership of the Chabad movement on the Tenth of Shevat 1951, a year after his father-in-law’s passing.  He faced a broken post-Holocaust Jewry throughout the world, accompanied by devastating assimilation, especially in the United States.  His “Nachshonian” approach, to drive forward in the pursuit of strengthening Judaism and Jewish identity regardless of any challenges or difficulty transformed the face of global Jewry. 

You and I may not be Nachshons, and we may not be faced with such great earth-shaking decisions, but each of us can learn from these leaders and try to emulate them in a small way in our own lives.  When faced with challenges, we can start calculating the risks and benefits of this decision or that one, or we can drive forward and do the right thing, as prescribed in the Torah.  As difficult as that may be, ultimately that is the way to “split the sea,” to remove the obstacles and to move toward Sinai and connection to Hashem.

Parshat - Shevat, Bo

The Jewish people left Egypt.  This is the main theme of this week’s Parsha.  We read first about the lead up to that great event – the last three plagues, asking the Egyptian neighbors for their possessions and thereby emptying Egypt of its wealth, the Pesach lamb sacrifice, and then the Exodus.  About three million people ventured into the desert, and what did they take along to eat?  A little matzah.  Whenever my kids or guests are traveling, I urge them to take food along.  Even if it is a short trip, I insist on it.  Maybe it’s my PTSD from the time many years ago when I was returning from NY with a toddler on the now defunct Eastern Airlines.  We were taking a late evening flight, had eaten dinner and would arrive late at night, so no need for food.  My mother in law made a few sandwiches and stuck them into my bag.  It turned out that the plane had some malfunction, so the now defunct Eastern sent us from JFK airport to LaGuardia, then back to JFK, and to cut a very long and morbid story short we finally took off six hours late.  Those sandwiches saved us, especially the little girl.  One of the reasons it is so important for us to take food is because when you keep kosher there is usually no food available in the usual places where people on trips buy food.  Now imagine three million people going into an arid desert with no food or water, just a little matzah!  Besides the fact that the dough didn’t rise, what’s remarkable is that there was no effort to pack up large provisions of food!

This incredible faith the Jewish people had in Hashem is part of a prophecy of Jeremiah (2:2) that we quote in the Rosh Hashana liturgy.  Hashem tells Jeremiah to tell the people:  I remember the kindness of your youth, your early love, when you followed me into the desert, a land that is not sown.  This was the faith that the Jewish people had when they left Egypt, and it was rewarded with food (Manna) falling from heaven every morning for close to 40 years, and a miraculous well that provided as much water as they needed for drinking, bathing and Mikvah use.

The Torah teaches us that this faith in fact is how we should continue to live.  Although Manna doesn’t fall from heaven nowadays, it is still Hashem who provides our food and sustenance.  The difference is that now we have to work in order to create the channel for the blessing.  So there are two parts to financial success.  The work that we do, which is the channel for the blessing, and the blessing from Hashem that fills the channel.  I know that it is not easy to live this way, and the natural world appears to work differently, but we do see that different people may work equally hard and have similar ideas, yet one is blessed with great wealth and the other struggles.  This is especially evident in Silicon Valley.  Of course we can always explain it in natural terms, but it behooves us to open our eyes to the Divine Providence that guides us every day.

So if it is Hashem’s blessing that is the source of our livelihood, we need to be sure that the channel we create, our jobs or businesses, are worthy of the blessing.  We must refrain from following any dishonest practices, and make sure all our activities follow the Torah’s ethical, legal and moral guidelines.  Hashem has told us to work for six days and rest on the seventh.  We don’t need to “help Him out” by working on Shabbat, in fact in the big picture that hurts our potential for success.  We should take the time to pray and study, to care for others and especially our families.  We should give at least ten percent of our income to Jewish Tzedakah causes, which in itself brings great blessings.  We should use our work and its proceeds as tools to bring meaning to our lives and to the world.  And if we are tempted to do otherwise because we think we can’t make a living without following “the way of the world,”  we remember the faith of our forefathers and Hashem’s promise to continue to sustain us if we follow Him with faith.  There is a lot to add to this and certainly there are many questions, perhaps I will revisit the subject with some more details in the near future.

Parshat - Tevet Vaera

Today, the 24th of  the Hebrew month of Tevet, we mark the passing of one of the greatest Jewish leaders of all time, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement.  The Alter Rebbe (literally translated as the Old Rebbe, but meaning the first of the dynasty), as he was known, passed away in the year 1812.  What was unique about Rabbi Shneur Zalman is how he was able to bring together the esoteric teachings of the Torah and the “revealed” or Talmudic and halachic (legal) teachings.  For millennia the mystical teachings of Torah were hidden and available to a few chosen saintly scholars.  Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, began teaching it to the masses, and these teachings became known as Chassidus.  The study of Chassidus, however, was very different from Talmudic study.  The study of Talmud is intensely analytical, with questions and answers and often heated debate, and “splitting hairs” to get at the truth of the law.  Chassidus, on the other hand, was originally taught in relatively brief esoteric lessons, understood and accepted mostly on a faith, as opposed to intellectual level.  The Alter Rebbe, with his brilliant scholarship and saintliness, was able to create a method that allowed us to study Chassidus with the same kind of intellectual analysis and deep understanding as the Talmud.  He therefore called it “Chabad”, the Hebrew letters of which, chet, bet, daled, stand for wisdom, understanding and knowledge.  By bringing our inbred faith in Hashem into the mind, he taught, we are able to use the mind to control our emotions, and therefore every person, regardless of level of scholarship, can have a lasting and meaningful relationship with Hashem.

These teachings were written in several major works, the most famous of which is the book of Tanya.  This work brought a complete shift in the way people looked at Chassidus, and has revolutionized the way we understand our relationship with Hashem, the meaning and significance of Mitzvot, how we overcome challenges in our lives, and even how we study Talmud and Jewish law.  Because of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s outstanding brilliance in Talmud and Jewish law, he compiled a version of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) that also revolutionized the way we study Halacha.  Previously, the choices were to study lengthy texts with the reasoning behind all the laws, or abbreviated texts that contained only the laws themselves without any reasons given.  The Alter Rebbe found a way to give us the best of both worlds: Clear halachic rulings with concise explanations of the reasons.  His writing is often referred to as “golden language” because of the way it reads, completely accessible to anyone yet containing the background of the laws, each of which is otherwise contained in pages of text. 

A person’s Jewish name, we are taught in Torah, describes a person’s soul.  Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s name is consistent with his contribution in both areas of Torah, the Talmudic/legal and Chassidus.  The name, Shneur can be written in two words as “Shnei Or”, meaning two lights, referring to the lights of Talmud and Chassidus.  In addition to his work in these two areas, the Alter Rebbe also compiled a unique version of the siddur - prayer book.  In addition to cleaning up many mistakes that had crept in to hand written copies of the prayer books over the centuries, he incorporated the Kabbalistic teachings of the Arizal into the text and the customs written in the siddur.  Please read here for a lot more information on this revolutionary accomplishment.

On this day, it is customary to study some of the Alter Rebbe’s writings in Chassidus and Halacha, to give some extra Tzedakah, and to try to find ways to connect with his legacy in a meaningful and practical way.  One practical suggestion I have is to join my Sunday Tanya class, given (almost) weekly at my house.  Let me know if you would like more information.

Parshat - Tevet Shemot

This week we read about the Jewish exile in Egypt. In last week’s Parsha we read about their arrival, next week we will read about the beginning of the plagues and the lightening of the oppression, but this week is all about the oppression, murder and torture that the Egyptians inflicted on the Jews. I’m sure you know the famous story of the Burning Bush, where Hashem appears to Moshe and tells him that the time of the redemption has arrived, and that Moshe is to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the people go. What is especially fascinating to me today is what Hashem chooses to tell Moshe at this initial revelation. After telling him that Pharaoh will initially not listen, and that He will bring signs and wonders to force him to let them go, Hashem says: “When they leave, they will not leave empty handed.” They will ask their neighbors to give (or lend) them their gold and silver and they will empty out the wealth of Egypt. It is telling that this was part of Hashem’s first charge to Moshe, even though it happened about a year later, implying that  it carries a lot of importance as part of Moshe’s mission. One wonders why that specific issue had to be discussed now, in the face of the horrible suffering that the Jews were dealing with every day.

One explanation is related to a story told in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a). When Alexander the Great came to Israel, a group of Egyptian farmers sued the Jewish community before him. They claimed that the Jews owed them a huge treasure, since they had taken all the Egyptian wealth with them when they left Egypt. Alexander asked the Jews to respond, and a man by the name of Geviha ben Pesisa volunteered to speak on their behalf. He said to the Egyptians: How do you know that this happened?  They answered that it was written in the Torah. Geviha responded: “Well, it also says in the Torah that the Jews were in Egypt for 430 years [and they were enslaved without pay]. Pay us for 600,000 people working for 430 years. When Alexander asked the Egyptians for their response, they requested three days. During that time, they all escaped, leaving their fields with ripe grain. It was a Sabbatical year when Jews are not allowed to sow their fields, so this standing grain was a huge bounty for the community.

With this story we can begin to understand what Hashem was telling Moshe when, at the very first time He sent him, He told him that the Jews would request the Egyptian wealth and receive it. A slave feels worthless. He is just serving his master with no expectation of payment, and is happy to get his freedom when it comes. Hashem was sending a message that the Jews were not just ordinary slaves in Egypt and their work was not worthless. They had a spiritual purpose there, as Kabbalah and Chassidus explains. In order to prepare the world for receiving the Torah and transforming it to goodness, they needed to “elevate the sparks of holiness” that were buried in Egypt. This also explains why it was so significant that they emptied Egypt of its wealth, but this discussion is beyond the scope of these lines. You can read about the concepts of “sparks” here and here. Suffice it to say that the Jews were accomplishing a great cosmic change with their presence in Egypt. Hashem tells Moshe that the Jews will not slip out of Egypt like ordinary slaves empty-handed. They will be well paid by the Egyptians. Not only that, but they will rightfully ask the Egyptians to pay them, and the Egyptians will agree, showing the great value of their work.

In our own lives, we can take comfort in the knowledge that all out work, including the challenges we face to living a life of goodness, is not empty and meaningless. Every action we do to improve the world and connect to holiness has worth and will ultimately bring great reward, material and spiritual.

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