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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.

Parshat - Tevet Vayechi

Today, Thursday, is a fast day, the Tenth of Tevet. We fast to commemorate the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem by the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar in the year 425 BCE, or 3336 from Creation. The siege led to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, and the end of Jewish independence. (This day also commemorates other sad events in our history, you can read more here.) Our Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, taught us to look at everything that happens in the world as a positive, loving action from Hashem.  This understanding can completely transform our thinking from worry and depression over all the terrible things that have happened, and that we are afraid might happen, to a recognition that there is a positive purpose for everything. This world view is not just words to make people feel better. It led to a great Jewish revival and the tremendous success of the Chabad movement around the world.  

It is based (at least in part) on a verse from the Song of Songs quoted by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneerson, in a Chassidic discourse, whose opening words are: “I have come to My garden…” (Song of Songs 5:1).  The Midrash explains that these are the words of Hashem, describing this physical world as His garden, the place where His Presence is found more than in all the spiritual worlds.  (The previous Rebbe wrote this discourse in advance of the Tenth of Shevat in 1950 (5710), to be studied on that day, which ended up being the day he passed away.  Every year on the anniversary of the previous Rebbe’s passing, which is also the anniversary of our Rebbe assuming the leadership of the Chabad movement, the Rebbe would discuss this discourse at great length, explaining a different chapter each year.) The Rebbe taught us that this world is a delightful garden where Hashem has pleasure from the work of human beings. In that context, all the challenges and difficulties are part of the delight of the garden. 

Chassidim around the world are starting to study the discourse in preparation for the upcoming Tenth of Shevat celebration a month from now. This is not the forum to elaborate on how that can be, or to explain the discourse. You can study the discourse here. I just want to focus on one point. If the fast today is part of the delightful garden, then we can understand that it is not merely a day to mourn or to be sad about our past history and our losses, but to do what we can to bring about the realization of the positive outcome that the fast, and the events leading up to it, can and should bring.

Very briefly, it is the destruction and exile that are leading toward the future great redemption and Hashem’s permanent revelation in the world. It is our work transforming the darkness and overcoming evil that will bring to the rebuilding of the Temple and true peace in Israel and the entire world. It is by not allowing ourselves to get sucked up in the negativity, and doing what we can, as individuals and as a community, to do acts of goodness and kindness, that we bring about real change in the world. So on a fast day, we do what we can to move beyond the suffering and pain and toward positivity and goodness. Besides reminding us of the sorrow of the day, refraining from eating and drinking lifts us out of the material and helps us focus more on the spiritual.  On this day we say additional prayers, we give more Tzedakah, we try to spend some more time studying Torah, and do what we can to improve the world by reaching out and helping others. 

One of the most important steps to getting out of a rut is to envision a better place and try to get there. So our hunger reminds us that we don’t belong in exile. The world is a beautiful garden, and even if it does not appear to us that way today, we can envision it so, and do everything we can to bring beauty and goodness into it. Our thoughts and actions in that direction will bring to fruition our ability to really see the beauty of the garden. As the prophet Zechariah said, (8:19) there will come a day when this fast day, along with the other days when we mourn the destruction, will turn into days of great rejoicing, when we realize that they were stepping stones to the great euphoric life of the future.

Parshat - Tevet Vayigash

We have spent that last eight days celebrating the great festival of Chanukah. Many Jews around the world have spent the last 24 hours celebrating the release of Sholom Rubashkin from prison, and others have criticized the celebration since, after all, he was convicted of bank fraud. I have had many conversations with people on both sides of the discussion, and I think it is important to address this issue since it is affecting Jews around the world. There are those who are ecstatic that this injustice has been corrected and this man, who is known as truly generous and is perceived as having been handed a way-too-harsh sentence, is now free. There are those who point out that he was convicted of a crime, that he shamed the Jewish people, and that the celebration completely ignores this fact. As someone who tends to think that extremes are generally destructive (with minor exceptions), I look at both sides of this discussion and I think I have a nuanced view on it.

There are three separate issues here the way I see it. First, Rubashkin was convicted of a crime, and I don’t think there are many people who would fault the justice system from meting out a just and fair sentence for that. In fact, had the sentence been just and fair, we would probably not have been discussing this whole issue. The fact that he is indeed a kind and special person should probably be taken into account and mitigate his sentence, as is often the case when a judge is trying to determine what the intent was and how destructive the criminal is to society. Pointing out that he is a special person, that he is truly a kind and generous man, that he has 10 children and that this is his first offense, as well as the nature of the crime, does not mean that we don’t believe he committed a crime. It means that this should all be taken into account on sentencing.

The second issue is the sentence and the reasoning behind it, and this is where, in my opinion, it becomes a Jewish community issue, and the release a reason for global celebration. How is it possible that a person like Sholom Rubashkin, convicted for the first time of a financial crime, was given 27 years in prison?  Does anyone in the world think that is a just and fair sentence?  How can it be that the judge gave a sentence that is two years longer than the prosecution requested?  Is it ok for a judge to collude with the prosecutor and plan the raid against the meat packing plant together?  Is this the way our justice system is supposed to work?  This really doesn’t make any sense, so we need to look for ways to understand it. The way it appears to me and many in the community is that the judge was broad brushing at best, more likely bigoted. Anti-Semitism is a serious charge that we try not to throw around lightly, but probably some of that too. Some have suggested that some of the newcomers to Iowa from New York acted as if they were still in New York and angered the local citizenry, and there is much more to be said about the tensions in that community. If that was taken into account in the sentencing, then that is indeed bigotry, just as it is when people lump together a race or ethnicity for crimes committed by some of that group, or an entire religion for the bad behavior of some of its adherents. This is something that Jews have fought for generations, recognizing the individual rights of each person and the toxic effects of lumping an entire group together. When it hits us Jews, we call it anti-Semitism, and it has been a source of persecution for us for millennia. 

The third issue is how we Jews react to the situation. There are many who focus on the crime and the shame it brings to our people. We are supposed to take a higher moral ground and be an example to the world. When one of us messes up, we all feel ashamed. So they feel that we should not take on the cause of the injustice that was perpetrated against this felon, because the bigots of the world consider this something “The Jews” have done.  So we judge him and throw him under the bus, because he is a bad actor.

Then there is another approach. While we understand that this is not a case of someone innocent being falsely charged, we should stand up for his rights, at least as we stand up for the rights of others convicted of crimes. We should recognize the affront to our people when someone is given a harsh sentence because he is part of a group, especially when that is our group. We should not have a double standard of standing up for the rights of everyone except ourselves. We should stand by our brother who has slipped and done something wrong, and we should fight to root out injustice against a fellow Jew and stand up against bigotry directed at Jews.

So when that injustice is recognized and a man who had no business being in prison so long is released, it is cause for celebration – for his friends (like myself), for his community (like myself), for all Jews (like myself), and for all moral and ethical people around the world (I hope that includes me). So yes, I am celebrating. Mazaltov.

Parshat - Chanukah Miketz

It’s hard to fathom the magnitude of the Chanukah miracle. We read about the “weak, few, righteous, Torah observant scholars” overcoming the “many, mighty, wicked and wanton transgressors.” The images that we conjure up are those of a small, agile and brave band of warriors using guerilla warfare to beat down the larger, more powerful enemy.  In fact, if we study the history, it was not like that at all. There was a family of Kohanim (priests) and a few followers, 14 altogether when they started, who rebelled against the mightiest occupying force in the world. To say the odds were against them is the greatest understatement ever.  You can’t even say that they didn’t stand a chance. It was inconceivable that the rebellion would go anywhere. Yet, by open, revealed miracles, they did overcome the enemy and purify the Holy Temple. And then came the miracles with the oil. First, that they actually found a bottle of undefiled oil, and then that the one day supply lasted for eight days.

There have been other great struggles in our history, including the subsequent revolt against the Romans that led to the destruction of the Holy Temple, the failure at Masada and the revolt of Bar Kochba that ended in the massacre of huge numbers of Jews and the imposition of draconian measures against the Jews. What happened on Chanukah? How could this tiny band of scholars face the entire Greek-Syrian army? Why the great miracle this time? This is one of the issues we discussed in a recent JLI class. There are many facets to the answer and I will discuss just one point. 

The Maccabees did not set out to start an army. The Greeks did not allow Torah observance. They were actually not seeking to destroy “Jewish culture.”Their fight was against the Divinity of Torah, the belief that it is from Hashem, and the Mitzvot that have no logical explanation, like kosher food and circumcision. They made it impossible for the Jews to follow the Mitzvot, and the Maccabees simply were not willing to accept that. They decided to follow Torah observance at all costs and were ready to sacrifice everything, including fighting the huge enemy with zero odds of winning. This self-sacrifice was rewarded by Hashem with the great miracles of winning the war and seeing the oil burn for eight days. This was not a war for any kind of nationalism or political independence, it was simply an unwillingness to give up on our unique bond with Hashem through the Torah.

This is the ultimate message of Chanukah. It is our Torah heritage that keeps Judaism alive, and in the long run, it our unwavering adherence to Torah that is the secret to our miraculous survival. This message is as important to share today as ever, when we see so many of our youth not recognizing Judaism as an identity, to the extent that unfortunately many are choosing not to circumcise their sons. We need to take the opportunity of Chanukah, the beautiful Festival of Lights, to spread that message to as many of our brothers and sisters as we can. 

Happy Chanukah.

Parshat - Kislev Vayeshev

Today, Thursday, is the 19th of the Jewish month of Kislev. On this day, and the 20th, we celebrate the release of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement, from Czarist prison. The story of his arrest is complicated, and many books, articles and texts have been written discussing the circumstances leading up to the arrest, his time in prison, and his great victorious release. His jailers thought they were dealing with a rebel who was fomenting revolution and treason, and soon realized that this was a huge miscarriage of justice, that in fact this was a holy, saintly man whose entire life was dedicated to spreading holiness and love of one another.

You can read all about it here, and I will not write a lot about the details. Let me just say that a Jewish holiday is not just a celebration of a historic event. It is a time of great spiritual revelation. The Divine revelation that happened at the time of the event that we are celebrating repeats itself every year. The false accusations against Rabbi Schneur Zalman were based on the fact that he was disseminating the esoteric, mystical teachings of the Baal Shem Tov in a way that became intellectually accessible to everyone, from scholar to novice. So the day that he was released with great fanfare and began a new, much greater push to spread these teachings (the reason this day is known as the “Rosh Hashana for Chassidus”) is a day for us to consider how we can follow his path and intensify our connection to them. 

Specifically, this is a day to commit to intensify our Torah study, both the basic studies like Talmud and Halacha and the inner soul of Torah, the Chassidic teaching for which Rabbi Schneur Zalman fought. Ideally, we should try to increase our attendance at public Torah classes. This is also a good time to study the customs and way of life that Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught and try to increase our observance of them. It is customary to attend a “Farbrengen”, Chassidic gathering, on this day and to recount the stories of the arrest and liberation and what the day stands for. Feel free to join us tonight at 7:00 at the Chabad Center in Palo Alto. And as always on an auspicious day, we increase our giving of Tzedakah which creates a physical manifestation of the holiness of the day. 

In the Chassidic tradition, I wish you a “Good Yomtov and a Happy New Year of Chassidus and its path.)

Parshat - Kislev Vayishlach

Everyone wants to find happiness. There are untold numbers of books on the subject, and we are always looking for the “secret to happiness.” Lately, I have seen many articles and posts stating that the secret to happiness is gratitude.  Being thankful for what we have and not focusing on what we don’t. I agree with that, and this is an especially important message in these times, when so many people come across as feeling entitled. It’s interesting to read about this new discovery that psychologists and others have recently discovered and has become all the rage, but It’s been in the Torah for thousands of years.  The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) states: Who is wealthy?  One who is satisfied with his or her lot.  But it originates much further back, in a story in this week’s Parsha, Vayishlach. 

Yaakov has spent 20 years in Lavan’s house in Charan, and is returning to Canaan.  He knows that Esav hates him and wants to kill him, and that is confirmed by the messengers (angels) he sends to see what Esav is up to.  So in addition to prayer and preparing for war, he sends a massive gift of several herds of animals to Esav.  In the end Esav decides not to fight and instead embraces and kisses Yaakov.  Then they talk for a while, and Esav says to Yaakov: “I have a lot [of possessions], my brother, keep what is yours.”  Yaakov answers: “Please take the gift that I have sent you because Hashem has been gracious to me and I have everything [I need].”

There are two major differences in the statements that our Sages point out.  Esav says “I have a lot,” implying that there is always room for more, and, it would seem, taking personal credit for his wealth.  Yaakov, however, attributes his wealth to Hashem’s blessings, and he says “I have everything,” meaning that I am perfectly satisfied with what I have.  Material things will never make us happy, because human nature is such that, as the Talmud states, one who has 100 wants 200, and one who has 200 wants 400, and it doubles from there.  So no matter how much we achieve, we always feel like we only have half of what we need.  If we can harness that natural desire for spiritual growth, constantly striving for improvement and enlightenment, and be satisfied with what we have materially, that leads to a truly happy life.

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