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Chol Hamoed Pesach

Today is the third day of Pesach.  There are essentially three parts to Pesach. The first two days have the status of a full Yomtov - Holiday - when we refrain from all work, except cooking food for the day, or carrying in the street (even without an Eruv), which are permitted on Holidays although forbidden on Shabbat.  The last two days of the Holiday have this status, as well.  The four days in between - the Intermediate Days - are called Chol Hamoed, which translates loosely to "the weekdays of the Holiday”.  On the one hand, they are still part of the Holiday, which we observe by celebrating, saying special prayers and refraining from work.  On the other hand, they are "weekdays", so we are not forbidden from work.  What that means from a practical standpoint is that we do only the work that is absolutely necessary.  So, we go on trips and go to work if we have to keep our jobs, but we try to cut back on work as much as possible.  (Of course, since Shabbat is one of those four days this year, the Shabbat rules apply.)

Originally, the way it is written in the Torah, the Holiday included one day at the beginning, one day at the end and five days in between, for a total of seven days, and this is the way it is still observed in Israel today.  Outside of Israel, we observe an extra day.  The first day commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and the last day commemorates the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, which happened on that day.  The Torah tells us to eat Matzah for seven days, so this celebration spans the entire time-- from when the Jews left Egypt until the day that their enemies were no longer a threat.

In observance of Chol Hamoed, I am going to be brief, and conclude with best wishes for a continued happy Pesach.  Just one point to add:  On the eighth day of Pesach we read the prophecy of the coming of Moshiach and the future redemption.  Our Sages have said that just as we were redeemed from Egypt in the month of Nissan, so we will be redeemed from this exilein [?] Nissan.  It is customary to enjoy a meal at the end of that day known as the "Moshiach Feast" with Matzah and four cups of wine.  I invite you to join me at 7:30 PM on Tuesday April 18th at 3070 Louis Road for this uplifting occasion.   Chag Sameach. 

Parshat Tzav - Shabbat Hagadol

Well, here we are, a few days before Pesach.  If you are like the overwhelming majority of Jews, you are busy doing some preparation -- cleaning the house, buying food and other supplies for the Seder, inviting guests or arranging to be at a Seder, and so much more.  (By the way, at Chabad we can help you with many of your supplies, including hand-baked Matzah, a great selection of Haggadahs, Seder plates, Kiddush cups, and much more.)  There is also the spiritual component of Pesach, for which it is also a good idea for us to prepare.  As in all matters of Judaism, the physical and spiritual go together.  The point of the Holiday is not just to remind us of a story that happened over 3,300 years ago, but also to celebrate “Zeman Cheruteinu”, the time of our freedom.  A lot has been written about the concept of freedom according to Torah, especially in Chassidic writings, and I have given some classes on the subject.  You can see an example here .

I want to focus now on a beautiful message based on a talk I heard from Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, which gives a deeper insight into an important aspect of the Haggadah, and a lesson for us as we strive to attain inner freedom and meaning in life.  It is a Biblical Mitzvah to recount the story of the Exodus on Pesach night.  It is also a Mitzvah to “tell your children…what Hashem did for us when we left Egypt.”  We fulfill these Mitzvot at the Seder, having our children ask the Four Questions, reading the verses of Exodus in the Torah, and discussing their meaning as laid out in the Haggadah.  The first passage we say after the child asks the four questions is “Avadim hayinu – we were slaves in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of there with great miracles.”  A little later, we talk about the history and lineage of the Jewish people.  “In the beginning our ancestors (meaning Avraham’s father, Terach) were idol worshippers, and now Hashem has brought us close to His service.”  We say these two passages, each dealing with a different aspect of our humble beginnings leading toward a glorious future, based on a difference of opinion in the Talmud.  The Mishna says that when we recount the story of the Exodus, we should begin the story with the negative, the shame of the past, and end with the positive, the glory.  (This is a powerful general message about how we look at our past and recognize how we overcame negativity and then, with Hashem’s help, rose to great heights. You can read more on this subject here .)  What is the negative that we start with?  The Talmudic sage Rav says that we begin with the spiritual lowness, Terach’s idol worship, from which we emerged to receive the Torah at Sinai. Shmuel says that we begin with the physical bondage that we suffered at the hand of Pharaoh from which we emerged with great miracles.  To satisfy both opinions, we say both.

Rabbi Sacks offers an explanation, based on Rambam, that these two great sages are not disagreeing.  Instead, they are discussing two separate aspects of the narrative and providing two separate lessons for our lives.  As I mentioned earlier, there are two parts to the Mitzvah of retelling the Exodus story on Pesach night.  One is the general Mitzvah of telling the story which applies to adults, whether there are children present or not.  The second is to tell our children.  When our children ask us why this night is different, we tell them about the great miracles that Hashem performed for us.  This is the first section that we say right after the Four Questions:  we were slaves and Hashem miraculously freed us.  Once we have answered the child’s questions, we move on to the adult discussion.  This is not focused on what Hashem did for us, but on what we need to do for Hashem.  We moved away from idol worship and adopted faith in Hashem.  The beginning of faith in Hashem, as a child, is based on the miracles He performed for us.  But as we mature, we realize that true freedom is not about what we are receiving and what is being done for us.  It is about us getting out of ourselves and living for a higher purpose, focused on what we have to do for Hashem.  This is the path to our personal Exodus, releasing the shackles of our material, emotional and even self-imposed spiritual limitations, and soaring to great heights of true spiritual expression, the freedom that can come only when our Divine soul expresses itself in our everyday actions.

There is a verse that states: “As in the days of your Exodus from Egypt I will show you wonders (Micah 7:15), referring to the future redemption through Moshiach.  May we merit this redemption this year, there is still enough time for it to happen.  Wouldn’t it be great to enjoy a roasted Paschal lamb in Jerusalem?  Happy Pesach and this year in Jerusalem.

Parshat Vayikra

What is leadership and how should a leader behave?  The Torah contains many stories and directives that answer this question and the Jewish people have many great role models as leaders.  One of the powerful lessons of leadership is derived from a single, seemingly innocuous word in this week’s Parsha, “Vayikra”.  The Parsha talks about animal sacrifices that were brought to the Temple for various purposes.  There were sacrifices as gifts, often as burnt offerings that were completely burned on the Altar.  There were also sacrifices of thanksgiving and “piece offerings”, whose meat was enjoyed by the Kohanim (priests), as well as the sacrifice provider and his or her family and friends. 

Then there were sin-atonement offerings for various transgressions.  If a person sinned and did Teshuva (repentance) to fully atone for the sin, he or she would bring a sacrifice.  Sin offerings varied, depending on the individual, the type of sin, and whether it was intentional or done without knowledge that a sin was being committed.  There was a special sacrifice if the court erroneously guided the people to inadvertently sin, another special offering if the High Priest sinned, and another for the leader of the people, usually referring to the king. 

Each of these offerings is described in a separate paragraph, most of which begin with words like:  “A person who sins,” or “If a person sins”.  The paragraph relating to the king begins with the words: “Asher Nasi Yecheta” – usually translates as “If” or “When the king will sin”, but the choice of word “Asher” is curious.  “Asher” is usually translated as “that”, and seems to be out of context here.  This is another example of the depth of meaning in every word of the Torah, and how seeming grammatical anomalies actually teach us profound Divine lessons in our lives.  The word “Asher” shares a root with the word “Ashrei”, which means “happy” or “fortunate”. Our Sages commented on this verse: “Happy is the generation whose leader admits to wrongdoing, even inadvertent wrongdoing, and sets his heart to attain atonement”.  Here, the leader of the people, a king who can choose to be answerable to nobody, sinned without realizing it.  How many ways can he weasel out of this situation?  He can say it was a mistake (which is the truth in the case the Torah is discussing), make excuses, blame his officers, or just ignore it.  The Torah tells us that a great leader is one who stands up and sets his heart on atoning for the sin.  Not only is this good for him, it also brings fortune to the entire generation.

This concept is even greater when we realize that the term “Asher” is used for the king but not for the High Priest, for whom it would seem the same idea applies.  The Rebbe explains that this is due to the differing types of leadership of these two people.  The role of the High Priest is to guide the people to follow Hashem’s will and do the right thing.  It, therefore, follows that he would set an example and bring a sacrifice when necessary. According to Torah, the role of a king, however, is to help the people refrain from going off the path in the first place, so when the king commits a sin, it goes against the purpose of his leadership.  This enhances even more the greatness of a leader, who is willing to step forward, admit his sin and seek atonement.  

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei - Hachodesh

This week we have the longest Torah reading of the year.  While the longest Parsha is actually “Nasso”, which we will read in the summer, this week we combine two Parshiyot, “Vayakhel” and “Pekudei”, and in addition we read the fourth of the special Parshiyot related to Purim and Pesach, Parshat “Hachodesh”.  So altogether, it is the longest Torah reading ever.  Personally it carries nostalgia for me, because I read it for my Bar Mitzvah.  We take two Torahs from the ark.  In the first, we read the double Parsha of “Vayakhel” and “Pekudei”, concluding the book of Shemot (Exodus), and the community calls out in unison “Chazak, Chazak, Venitchazek” – be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened – as we do at the conclusion of every book. 

Then in the second Torah, we read Parshat “Hachodesh”.  The literal translation of those words is “the Parsha of the Month,” and it relates to the opening words of the Parsha.  “Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the Land of Egypt saying:  ‘Hachodesh haze lachem’ – ‘this month shall be for you the head of the months,’” meaning that on the Jewish calendar, the first month is Nissan.  This dichotomy, having our New Year in the seventh month because the beginning of the year is Tishrei and the beginning of the months is Nissan, has great spiritual significance.  Everything in the world, from humans to inanimate objects, has a body and a soul.  While the soul of each human is clearly recognizable in his or her actions and in the fact that without a soul the body is dead, we don’t necessarily recognize the soul of inanimate objects.  Their soul is the word of Hashem that created them and continues to create them every moment. 

The Torah teaches us that the entire universe was created “by the word of Hashem”.  Hashem said: “Let there be light” and there was light, and the Talmud tells us that there were ten such utterances with which Hashem created everything.  This means that the universe is not a natural occurrence, and it is Hashem’s word that brought it into existence.  In nature, if you exert outside pressure on something to make it behave differently from its nature, once the pressure is removed it will revert to its natural state.  For example, the natural state of a stone is to rest on the ground.  When someone tosses it into the air, the pressure of the thrower causes the unnatural upward motion of the stone, and as soon as that pressure dissipates, the stone reverts to its natural state and falls to the ground.  In the same way, since the universe has no natural existence and it is Hashem’s word that created it, should that word be removed, the universe would revert to nothingness.

That soul - the spiritual source of Creation, is hidden from our physical view, and it is the job of human beings to reveal it and to synthesize it with the physical universe--the body.  This synthesis is accomplished by using physical possessions for a higher purpose, to improve the world with goodness, kindness and Mitzvot.    The Jewish people were given the task of bringing this message to the world and leading the way in bringing  this synthesis to fruition.  In order to fulfill this mission, Hashem revealed Himself to us and gave us the Torah.  That revelation began in the month of Nissan, when Hashem Himself, as we say in the Haggadah, came down into Egypt and redeemed us, leading us into the desert with a pillar of fire at night and a cloud during the day.  This is why we have two New Years.  Rosh Hashana marks the creation of the physical universe, the body, and Nissan marks the beginning of spiritual revelation, the soul. 

There is an additional aspect to this explanation.  There is both a solar and a lunar calendar. In the special Parsha we read this week, “Hachodesh”, Hashem gives us the Mitzvah of following the the lunar calendar.  The mystical reason for this is that just as the moon reflects sunlight to the world, so we, the Jewish people, reflect Hashem’s light and reveal its purpose and mission.  This is why Nissan is the first of the months, reminding us that our priority in life is to bring Hashem’s light to the world and reveal the soul of all of Creation.

Parshat “Hachodesh” also tells us of the Mitzvah to keep Passover and to eat matzah on Pesach.  There are many expenses associated with this holiday, and it has been a custom through the ages, for every member of the community who is able to, to contribute to a fund that provides matzah, wine and other holiday needs to the poor.  This is considered a sacred obligation.  On our website, the order form for hand-baked Shmura matza provides you with an opportunity to contribute to this fund (click here).  100% of these funds will be distributed to those who need help with Pesach expenses.  If you know of someone who needs assistance, please let me know.  We are also happy to assist with any of your Pesach needs, whether you need a hagaddah, a Seder to attend, or information on any aspect of the holiday.  Please do not hesitate to contact us.

Parshat Ki Tissa - Parah

This Shabbat, once again, we take two Torahs from the ark and read two Parshiyot (plural of Parsha).  The second Parsha we read is called “Parshat Parah,” the Parsha of the Red Heifer, and is the third of the four special Parshiyot that we read in connection with Purim and Passover.  I’ll get back to that.  The first, regular Parsha is called “ Ki Tisa,” in which we read, among other things, the story of the Golden Calf the Jews created and worshipped in the desert.  After reading about that tragic mistake and transgression, we read about the power of Teshuva – return and repentance, and about the power of prayer.  Hashem taught Moshe the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy,” a prayer that brings forgiveness and blessing even after a most egregious sin.  The power of Teshuva is so great that the bond it creates between us and Hashem is even greater than it was before.  It was after Hashem’s forgiveness for the Golden Calf that He gave us the second set of Tablets, which  were inscribed with the Ten Commandments.  On the one hand these Tablets can be seen as lower quality because they were man-made, hewn from stone, as opposed to being miraculously made by Hashem like the first ones.  On the other hand, however, they are eternal.  In addition, our Sages tell us that with the second Tablets Hashem taught Moshe many more parts of the Torah than He had originally.  It was after the sin of the Golden Calf was forgiven that the Sanctuary - a place where Hashem’s presence could be felt and where miracles could be seen every day - was built.  So rather than focus on the sin and the mistake of the Golden Calf itself, though there are many lessons we can learn from that, the take away can be the fact that no matter how far we may fall, there is hope for a better future.  We should never give up on ourselves because on the other side of repentance and repair there is great promise for even greater things than we accomplished in the past.

Getting back to the second Parsha, Parah, it tells us of Hashem’s commandment to Moshe to have a young red cow sacrificed and burned on a bonfire, along with a few other items.  The ashes were then used for purification.  There is something called, “Tumah”, which we loosely translate as “impurity”, although, as in many translations, the rephrasing is imprecise.  If a person comes in contact with a human corpse, whether by touching or even by being under the same roof, he or she is considered  “Tamei.”  There is nothing wrong with being Tamei in our day-to-day life. In fact, we are all in that state nowadays.  A person in a state of Tumah, however,  could not enter the Holy Temple or eat any of the ritual foods, including the Pesach sacrifice that every Jew was obligated to eat (when the Temple stood) on the first night of Passover.  How would one move from the state of Tumah to a state of “Tahara” – loosely translated as purity?  There was a seven-day process for this.  On days three and seven, a Kohen (priest) would sprinkle the person with a mixture of pure spring water and the ashes of the Red Heifer.  At the end of seven days, having been sprinkled twice with this mixture, the person would go to the Mikvah and the Tumah would be gone.  As I mentioned before, we are all in a state of Tumah since we do not have the ashes and therefore cannot perform this procedure.  There have been nine Red Heifers to date.  Tradition tells us that a tenth that will be offered when Moshiach comes.

Next week, as we approach the month of Nissan and the arrival of Pesach, we will be reading the commandment for each person to eat a piece of the Pesach lamb sacrifice.  It was incumbent on each Jew to be in a state of purity at that time in order to fulfill that Mitzvah, and therefore this week we read the Parsha about purification.

These concepts of Tumah and Tahara, and the purification by the ashes of a cow, are not logical ideas.  The Parsha opens with: “This is the statute of the Torah.”  It is called a statute because it is a law given by Hashem without logical explanation.  We accept it as His will and we follow it for that reason. There are, however, many lessons we can learn in our lives from this Mitzvah, and one of them relates to what I wrote above about Ki Tisa. Moshe achieved atonement for the Jewish people through prayer, especially through the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that turned the bitterness of sin and punishment to sweetness and light.  It was this power that brought about the transformation, spiritually, of a cow (from a powerful animal, representing strong animalistic tendencies, to a vehicle for purification and spiritual light).  We can bring this transformation to our lives by following Moshe’s guidance in the Torah, and releasing ourselves from being stuck in the mire of past mistakes.  If we resolve to change for the better, the door is wide open and the future is bright.

Parshat Tetzaveh - Zachor

 

This Shabbat we once again take two Torahs out of the ark because we read two Parshiyot.  In the first Torah we read the regularly scheduled Parsha “Tetzave”, which contains Hashem’s instructions for the design of special clothing that the Kohanim (priests) wore during the service in the Temple, and then discusses the procedures for training and dedicating the Kohanim for the service.  The clothing described was spectacularly beautiful, especially the garments worn by the High Priest, which included a robe made of blue wool with golden bells hanging along its hem and an apron made of multi-colored fabric woven with gold.  There was also a multi-colored fabric “breastplate” that included 12 different colored precious gemstones set in gold, engraved with a name of one of the tribes, and sewn into the fabric.  There were two additional precious stones at the shoulders with the names of six tribes engraved on each.  The High Priest also wore a small golden plate on his forehead with Hashem’s name engraved on it, and a magnificent turban on his head.  Many more details are outlined in the Parsha.  As we have discussed before, when the Torah discusses the Sanctuary in the desert and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, it is also metaphorically referring to the personal Sanctuary to Hashem that is every human being.  The same applies to the priestly garments.  Thus, in addition to the physical beauty of the garments and their obvious impact on visitors to the Temple, every detail of each garment represents a facet of our personal service to Hashem.  When we use our talents and possessions to fulfill our mission on Earth, we are creating a personal Holy Temple, and Hashem dwells within each of us.

There are always forces that challenge us in this mission and try to derail us, which brings us to the second Torah where we read the second Parsha Parshat “Zachor”, which means “ to remember.” This Parsha tells us of the Mitzvah to remember what the nation of Amalek did to us when we left Egypt.  The Amalek people had no reason to fear or fight us.  The Jews were headed to Canaan, which was far from the land of the Amalek.  The Jewish people were excited to have miraculously left Egypt and were heading toward Sinai where Hashem was about to reveal Himself to them and officially make them His nation.  Everyone was afraid to disturb them or to mess with a people for whom Hashem had performed such great miracles. Yet Amalek hated us so much that they just couldn’t help themselves and went to war against us.  Our Sages compared the situation to a very hot bathtub that nobody would get into for fear of getting scalded until a fool came along and jumped in.  He got badly burned, but metaphorically cooled the water for everyone else, showing that immersing was possible after all. This was Amalek.  The Amalek people were beaten in war by the Jews, but at a cost: the act of fighting released some of the fear from our enemies and cooled the excitement of heading to Sinai for the Jews.

Metaphorically, Amalek represents the force within us that fights against our excitement to connect to Hashem and follow Torah and Mitzvot.  It is something we need to remember and think about every day in order to recognize the signs of our internal, spiritual Amalek and overcome the challenge.  When we hear that voice saying: “Why are you so excited about that Mitzvah, that holiday, that Torah observance?”  That is the Amalek within us.  Excitement and joy are very important parts of Jewish life, and are necessary components to keep us focused on our purpose and mission in light of all the myriad distractions and glitz and glamor of the world around us.  The little Amalek voice within tries to cool us down.  Perhaps we continue to fulfill our obligations, but the excitement is not there.  The Torah tells us to remember that this is Amalek, whose intention is to completely tear us away from Sinai, and we need to eliminate it.  It is considered a Biblical Mitzvah to listen to the reading of Parshat “Zachor”, and therefore anyone who is within walking distance of a Shul makes an extra effort to come to hear the reading. 

Immediately following Shabbat is the great, joyous day of Purim, when we celebrate the downfall of Amalek’s descendants and the miraculous foiling of his plot to wipe out all the Jews.  There are four unique Mitzvot for this day, which include hearing the Megillah reading twice, once on Saturday night and once on Sunday.  In order to fulfill this Mitzvah we need to hear it read form a Kosher parchment Megillah and listen to it in its entirety.  This Mitzvah is ideally fulfilled as a community, in large groups, but can be observed in small groups or as an individual, too.  At Chabad, we facilitate this Mitzvah for everyone.  We have many communal megillah readings and can arrange private readings if necessary.  The other three Mitzvot are to give money to at least two poor people, to give gifts of food to at least one friend, and to eat a festive meal.  Chabad can also help with those Mitzvot. We have several Purim meals planned, and I have a special fund to distribute money to the poor on the day of Purim.  I wish you a happy Purim!

 

Parshat Terumah

 

We are in the month of Adar, a month of happiness and joy.  As our sages said: “When Adar comes we increase our joy.”  This means that each day our joy should increase.  On the 14th day of this month we will celebrate Purim, when the Jewish people were saved from a decree of annihilation by Haman and Achashverosh, and the celebration begins right at the beginning of the month.  We Californians are feeling happy that it has stopped raining, the sun is out and spring is finally here.  But the happiness of Adar goes way beyond that.  How can you establish a rule that we need to increase our joy?  There are those who get very depressed at holidays because they are supposed to feel happy and they don’t, so they get more depressed.

It wasn’t that long ago that psychologists would say that feelings are feelings, and you can’t control your feelings.  You weren’t supposed to tell someone to be happy, because if they’re not happy, then they’re not happy and how does your telling them to be happy help?  There is a lot of logic to that:  If we are just telling people to be happy without also giving them the tools to feel that way, then we are undermining them and, I would agree, possibly making them feel worse.

I was talking to a psychologist recently who has a senior position at a local hospital.  He told me that about 15 years ago a psychologist came up with a groundbreaking concept: Every feeling begins with a thought, and if we can identify the thought we can control the feeling.  I told him that 250 years ago, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi founded the Chabad movement, and the central theme of Chabad philosophy is that the mind controls the heart.  This non-Jewish psychologist laughed and said:  I’m not surprised that this is in the Torah.” 

Happiness is a state of mind.  True happiness begins in the mind and then expresses itself in the heart, and if developed properly will also flow to our actions, thoughts and words.  There are always challenges and problems, and we can focus on them and get sad or upset.  They say that an optimist believes that today is the best day of his life, and a pessimist is afraid that he is right. We can look at the world and ask, “Why do I have this problem, why is life so difficult, why don’t I have this, why don’t I have that?”  Or we can look at the world as Hashem’s garden--a beautiful place with beautiful flowers and trees and fruits.  We dig up the ground, we put in seeds that could rot, we spread manure, we dig up weeds, and amazing things grow. Hashem put us in this world to do a job, to make beautiful flowers and fruits grow out of the dirt of the world.  We have a choice.  We can look at the dirt and the manure and think how dirty and smelly the world is, or we can recognize them as tools to accomplish great things.

Sadness arises when we see the “dirt” and the “manure” and fail to see what may be behind it.  The holiness beneath the surface is hard to imagine when we see so much hatred and despair in the world, and when we, ourselves, face challenges and difficulties.  This is where Purim comes in.  The Jews faced total annihilation.  Any Jew who agreed to give up his Judaism would have been spared the expected fate of the others.  Not a single Jew took that step.  They saw the great danger and challenge as a call to reconnect to Hashem and the Torah.  They reaffirmed the commitment they had made at Sinai to be Hashem’s people and to observe the Torah.  To the eye, it seemed that Hashem had hidden Himself from them, but they looked at the essence and recognized an opportunity to demonstrate that their commitment to Hashem was unconditional.  The response was the revelation of Hashem’s essence and a miraculous victory.  Hashem showed His commitment to the Jewish people and not a single Jew was harmed.  In fact, the opposite happened and they were rid of their enemies.

This is the key to happiness, to recognize that the negative always has a positive purpose.  That if Hashem throws us a challenge, it is to bring out our essence.  Just as the resistance when lifting weights, while often painful, strengthens our muscles, resisting evil and darkness strengthens out spiritual muscles.  When we think about the deeper message of Purim, we are better positioned to face life’s challenges with joy.  And each day, as we overcome the darkness, we get closer to our essential purpose, and that makes us even happier.  So it is that during the month of Adar, we can truly increase our joy every day.

 

 

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