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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Va'eria


This week we read about the beginning of the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.  The first seven of the ten plagues are recounted in this week’s Parsha.  Did you ever wonder why Hashem needed to bring ten plagues onto the Egyptians?  The omnipotent G-d could have just told the Jews to leave and there would be nothing that Pharaoh and his people could do to stop them.  Or Hashem could have gone straight to the tenth plague, the death of the firstborns, and that would be the end of the exile.  Or how about the ninth plague, seven days of darkness?  The Jews could have just slipped out then.  Or a myriad of other ways Hashem could have taken care of business without needing to perform all those miracles over the course of almost a year.  There are many explanations.  Here is one that explains the first two plagues, and also carries a powerful message along the lines of what I wrote on Chanukah about the Beit Hillel approach to conquering darkness.

In addition to the literal story of the Exodus that happened as described in the Torah, there is a spiritual “exodus” that each of us can and should go through every day.  It is a Biblical Mitzvah to mention and remember the Exodus not only at the Seder, but also every day of our lives, primarily for this reason.  We live in a world filled with evil and challenges to holiness and goodness.  This world closes in on us, due to the environment around us, the pressure to conform to the society and to follow the norms in making money, and internally our own habits and egos that can lead us astray.  Exodus in this sense is the ability to rise above all of this and allow the full expression of who we really are at our core, our soul.  How best to approach this?

First was the plague of blood, the waters of the Nile were transformed into blood.  What does that mean to us in our spiritual struggle?  Water is cold and blood is hot.  One of the biggest impediments to spiritual growth is the coldness and apathy toward anything holy.  Even for someone who grows up following the Mitzvot, apathy is like throwing cold water on everything.  So the first step is to get excited about matters of the soul.  Learning about the meaning of the Mitzvot and understanding our mission on earth, as well as observing Mitzvot with feeling and attention, can bring us excitement in our connection to Hashem and help warm us up to our soul and its purpose.  This is the first step toward overcoming our personal exile and moving toward spiritual Exodus.

Then came frogs.  Frogs are cold-blooded animals, and as the Torah tells us they swarmed all over Egypt and even went into the hot ovens.  Apathy to holiness is one problem, another problem to spiritual pursuits is excitement for the wrong things.  The more excited we are about mundane things, the less likely we are to pursue higher, spiritual matters.  The frogs in the oven represents cooling down the heat of all of the world’s distractions and removing the hot pursuit of empty or forbidden pleasures.  This cooling down process, the cold shower if you will, prepares the way for us to get excited about our soul’s desires and express our true essence.

The order of these two plagues is very interesting.  A person might think that if he or she is involved in unholy or even anti-holy activities, before we can approach Torah and Mitzvot we must first “clean up our act” and get out of the negativity in our lives.  This is also based on the verse (Tehillim 34:15) “Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”  First we must shun evil, and then we can do good.  While this is certainly an appropriate approach in the best of circumstances, the Torah is teaching us here that in a time of exile and spiritual challenge, the best approach is the other way around.  First of all, let’s get excited about doing a Mitzvah.  Warm up the cold Nile and get some spiritual enjoyment going.  This will in turn make it easier to cool down the negative excitement and the heat of negative pursuits.  A single Mitzvah, especially when fulfilled with warmth, sets the tone for more Mitzvot and more light, which in turn leads to a cooling of the negative fires.

This is certainly the approach for today, as we have seen in our generation.  Of course we have to move away from those things that move us off the path of Jewish life.  The way to approach it is by reaching up to Torah.  The Torah is telling us: No, it is not above you and you are not too far from it.  Don’t be afraid to approach Torah.  Do a Mitzvah and it will warm you up.

 

Vayechi

In the concluding Parsha of the book of Beresheet, Yaakov and his family are now living in Egypt, and Yaakov is approaching his last days.  Yaakov asks his son Yosef, ruler of Egypt, to visit him, and tells him in no uncertain terms that he cannot be buried in Egypt.  He asks Yosef to bury him in Israel, and in order to strengthen Yosef’s promise, he tells him to swear to it, which Yosef does.  This oath came to good use later when Yaakov died.  As he had predicted, Pharaoh did not want to allow Yosef to leave Egypt for fear that he may not return.  Another reason is that Pharaoh had intended to build an impressive grave for Yaakov.  The Talmud tells us that the blessing that the Torah says Yaakov gave Pharaoh when he first came to Egypt, was that the Nile waters would rise toward Pharaoh when he approached.  This happened two years into the famine that Pharaoh had dreamed of and Yosef had interpreted, that was supposed to last for seven years.  After this blessing the famine ended, shortening it by five years.  The Egyptians considered Yaakov a holy man, and wanted to have his grave enshrined in Egypt.  So when Yosef asked Pharaoh to let him take his father’s body to Canaan, Pharaoh did not want to let him go, until Yosef told him that he had sworn to his father to do this.  Pharaoh urged Yosef to annul the oath, but Yosef actually had leverage. 

 When Yosef had first been taken out of prison and brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, he spoke to Pharaoh in Hebrew, which Pharaoh did not understand.  Pharaoh, who prided himself on knowing more languages than anyone in the country, was humiliated, and made Yosef swear that he would never tell anyone that he knew more languages than him.  Now when Pharaoh was urging Yosef to annul his vow to his father, Yosef threatened to also annul his vow to Pharaoh, and with that Pharaoh acceded to his request and Yaakov was buried in the Cave of Machpela.  We see here a great effort on Yaakov’s part, putting his son, the ruler of Egypt, in a great predicament to challenge Pharaoh, the king of the known world at the time.  Yosef himself, along with all his brothers, went to great sacrifice to carry out his father’s wishes. 

This is a powerful lesson to us of how important it is to be buried as a Jew in a proper Jewish cemetery.  We find this lesson previously, when Sarah died and Avraham insisted on paying full price to purchase an appropriate place for her to be buried in Chevron.  The Talmud (Berachot 8:1) discusses the verse in Psalms (32:6) “For this let every pious person pray to you at a time that you may be found,” and gives a few explanations on what exactly is “the time that you may be found.”  One interpretation is that it is referring burial.  Jewish burial is one of the pillars of Jewish society.   The body itself is holy.  The Zohar describes the various parts of the body as vehicles for the Divine attributes.  The Mitzvah to build a Sanctuary in the desert, and later a Holy Temple in Jerusalem, is written in the Torah as: “They shall make Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell within them,” (Shemot 25:8) and our sages explain that in addition to the physical building, every one of us is a holy sanctuary for Hashem. 

 There is a Mitzvah to say a blessing before we eat any food.  We don’t say a “bracha” before we enter our house or business.  Even the first time we move into a new house there is no special bracha, but before we put any food or drink into our bodies, we are required to say a blessing.  One explanation given by the Rebbe is that while our physical possessions are ours to do with as we wish, the body is not our own property.  It was given to us for safekeeping by Hashem, and we are required to honor it as a treasure owned by Hashem.  The blessing we say before we eat or drink is a way of asking permission from Hashem before we put anything into our bodies.  We return the treasure by burying it into the ground.  And for a Jew, this sacred treasure must be returned to a sacred space, a properly consecrated Jewish cemetery. 

Today when more and more people are opting out of burial and tragically being cremated, something that is anathema to Jewish life and certainly not in keeping with the sanctity of Hashem’s body, it is especially important to make your wishes known.  One way to do that is through a Halachic Living Will, here. 

Techiyat Hameitim, the resurrection of the dead after Moshiach comes, is one of the foundations of Jewish faith.  The physical body will come back to life in a new world, where physical and spiritual will be united.  Proper Jewish burial also prepares for that time, as is explained in many Jewish writings, beyond the scope of this short note.  May we merit to see this very soon.

Parshat Vayigash/Hei Tevet

 

What is the big deal about a lawsuit?  Today, the fifth day of the month of Teves, known as Hei Teves, is a day of celebration and thanksgiving.  It is celebrated by Chabad Chassidim, and anyone who understands its meaning, as a momentous day of victory for the Jewish people.  Well, you may scratch your head and ask, what happened here?  There were books stolen out of the Chabad/Lubavitch library by an individual who claimed he had inherited them.  When he refused to return them he was sued, and Chabad won the lawsuit.  The judge’s verdict was announced on Hei Teves and the books were returned.  So we can understand the great celebration that year when it happened, but why continue to mark it as a holiday every year?  To achieve that status, an event must be a historic, life altering event that has lasting meaning that we tap into every year on the anniversary.

A lot has been written about the meaning of this day and you can read about it here.  As usual I want to focus on one point that I think encapsulates the true significance of Hei Teves and why, indeed, it has a lasting message for us.  One of the pillars of Jewish faith is that there is a purpose to everything.  The entire world was created for this purpose, and every person on earth has a personal mission to help fulfill that purpose.  In addition, every object that was created, every tiny detail of the universe, is a part of that purpose, and it is our responsibility to use it in that way.  Implied in this belief is that there is more to the world than meets the eye.  We go about our days seeing what we see and hearing what we hear, but in fact there is an inner core that we don’t see with our physical eyes and don’t hear with our physical ears.  The essence of every thing, the source if its life and very existence, is the Divine spark that we don’t see unless we look with a deeper vision.  This spark is part of the infinite G-d, and He chose to contract His light and clothe it in physical things, in order to create a world of choice.  With the spark hidden, it is up to us to choose to find it, to recognize that what we are looking at is more than a physical object, it is a tool to fulfill Hashem’s mission for the world.

The lack of vision may lead us to think that all books are just books and that all leaders are just leaders.  Let’s take these one at a time.  A book contains the words that are produced by the mind of the writer.  The book itself, the paper and ink, have no real significance other than the contents.  The contents themselves are significant to the extent that they have meaning to the author and the reader, some carrying more weight than others.  With this approach, a Torah book would be just like any other, except that the contents are more holy and meaningful.  However, with a deeper look at the significance of holy books, we can see that this is not the case.  The whole purpose of Torah is to reveal the inner core and purpose of everything, the Divine spark that is its essence.  The Torah itself is the “wisdom and will of Hashem.”  How can that be contained in a book?  (This question alone can fill hundreds of pages.)  Yet it is Hashem’s choice in His omnipotence, to contract His wisdom and will and clothe it in physical words and have it written in books.  So although these books look like any other books, they are in fact physical “containers” for the wisdom and will of Hashem.  Jews have shown reverence to holy books throughout the ages, knowing that in these books is the meaning of the world, of our purpose on earth, and actually the Divine will of Hashem.

There are many leaders in the world, some of them great people.  The greatest leaders have their personal lives and their communal lives.  Then there a few truly unique leaders who have no personal life at all.  Whose leadership is not what they do, but whose entire essence is their leadership of the people.  Moshe was that kind of leader.  After the Torah was given, Hashem told Moshe to tell the people to go back to their tents, “but you stand here with Me…” (Devarim 5:28.)  Every fiber of Moshe’s being was his leadership of the Jewish people, bringing the Torah, teaching it, advocating for the people, and seeing to all their needs. 

Now merge these two concepts.  A library of Jewish books, containing the wisdom and will of Hashem, faithfully and lovingly collected by leaders who had no thought of their own personal gain, but solely for the benefit of the Jewish people.  Along comes an individual who is a physical descendant of one of those leaders, claiming that the books were his grandfather’s personal property and therefore belong to him.  He was not just staking a claim on physical property.  He was denying the entire concept of the holiness of the books, as well as the true quality of a great Jewish leader.  The argument that Chabad made was that the entire library was the property of the Jewish people, and the Rebbe who brought the library here from Eastern Europe was a Moshe-style leader who accumulated this holy collection in his role as a Jewish leader.

So Hei Teves is not about a dispute over books. It is about the very essence of Judaism.  The recognition that our Torah and our once in a generation Moshe-style leaders are unique in their transmission of Hashem’s will to us.  This recognition is crucial for the survival of the Jewish people through the ages.  So I encourage you to celebrate this day by buying holy books and bringing more of the holiness within them into your home and your life.  We have a 25% sale on all books on our shelves in the Chabad Judaica store, or here are two sites that I recommend with deep discounts in celebration of Hei Teves.  www.kehotonline.comwww.sie.org

 

Parshat - Chukat

This Monday will be the 12th day of Tamuz.  This day is celebrated by Chassidim, as well as anyone who understands the great significance of this day, as a day that revolutionized Judaism.  When I write words like this, I am fully conscious that people often roll their eyes at the “hyperbole.”  Everything is a revolution and every celebration is earth shaking.  But let me explain why this is not hyperbole at all.  The time was at the height of the soviet union’s strength.  The Communist had declared war on religion, and the “Yevsektzia” – the Jewish section of the Communist movement, populated mostly by Jews who knew the ins and outs of the Jewish community, were out to obliterate any form of Jewish practice or teaching.  Although the law officially allowed freedom of religion, in practice anyone attempting to observe, and especially to teach, Judaism was arrested and either sent to Siberia to hard labor camps or executed by the Communist butchers.

In that setting most Jews had given up on any thoughts of observing Torah or teaching their children.  It was just too dangerous, and an entire generation of Jews was being raised in the Atheist environment of Communism.  Almost all the Jewish leaders escaped from Russia.  In that bitter, dark world, one man stood up and insisted that the light of Torah will not be extinguished.  He gathered a group of heroes around him who committed to give their lives to ensure that children would be raised in the Jewish way regardless of the dangers.  Like our great leaders before him, he risked his life, along with his followers, to establish clandestine schools and Yeshivot, underground synagogues and Mikvahs, and an entire infrastructure of Jewish life.  As the teachers and adherents to Judaism were arrested, new ones took their place.  This leader was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The Yevsektzia caught up with him and arrested him, and initially sentenced him to death.  The Rebbe went to his arrest with the absolute resolve never to allow the monsters to break his spirit, and there are many stories that show how he kept his resolve.  Through a great miracle, his sentence was commuted to exile, and a few days later he was freed, on the 12th day of Tamuz in the year 1928.  His release from prison was much more than a miracle for an individual, or even a major event for a great leader.  The news of the Rebbe’s release, in addition to bringing great relief to all his followers, energized the Jewish community and showed them that Communism was not invincible.  The Rebbe had said that only the body can be exiled, but the soul is not affected by the darkness of the world, and that nobody can stop a Jew’s connection to Hashem, his words were miraculously shown to be true. 

It is safe to say that if not for the miracle of the Rebbe’s release, any effort to keep Judaism alive in Eastern Europe would have ceased.  His liberation revived the spirits of the entire network of Chassidic heroes and kept the embers of Torah burning under the thumb of the Communist machine.  And as soon as communism fell, the underground came above ground and we see today the incredible strength of the movement that never allowed itself to be extinguished. 

There is also the mystical aspect of the liberation.  The Torah teaches us that evil is like darkness.  Darkness has no real lasting existence; it is the absence of light.  The way to dispel darkness is to bring light.  The great Divine miracle brought a light to the world that made it a little easier for those who were dedicated to keeping the light burning.  Once again we have seen in our generation an incredibly powerful force of darkness disintegrate, as Torah and Jewish practice flourishes.

Chabad communities around the world will be holding celebrations for this day.  I invite you to join us at the Chabad Center on Monday night at 9 pm.

Parshat - Shelach

After the story of the 12 spies who visited the land of Canaan, came back and (ten of them) gave a bad report, and caused the Jews to be stranded in the desert for 40 years, the Torah (in this week’s Parsha, Shlach) gives us several Mitzvot, including the Mitzvah of Challah.   The word Challah is usually associated with the (most commonly) braided bread that we eat on Shabbat and holidays, but this Mitzvah refers to something more. The translation of the word Challah is “loaf.” During the time when the Temple stood, in the land of Israel, anyone who baked bread was obligated to give a “Challah” – loaf of bread to a kohen (a member of the priestly family, the descendants of Aharon). The written Torah does not state a size or weight for the loaf, but the Sages established a standard amount of 1/24th of the dough for a private baker, and 1/48th of the dough for a commercial baker. The loaf is ideally separated as dough before it is baked, and the Torah tells us that it should be “the first of the dough,” meaning it is set aside for the kohen before we take any for ourselves.

After the Temple was destroyed, in order that we not forget about this Mitzvah, the Sages established an obligation to separate Challah from our dough wherever we may be, in Israel or in the rest of the world. However, the Rabbinic Mitzvah was set up a little differently. In order to eat the Challah, which is sacred food, the kohen had to be in a state of Tahara – loosely translated as ritual purity. The Challah itself also had to be in a state of Tahara, and any challah that became Tamei (ritually impure) had to be burned.   Since today we are all in a state of Tumah - loosely translated as ritual impurity - and cannot eat the sacred bread of Challah, and the Challah always has to be burned. The Sages therefore did not enforce the standardized amounts I mentioned above. We take a small amount of dough and burn or destroy it.

This beautiful Mitzvah that shows our recognition of Hashem’s blessings as the source of our food, is an obligation for both men and women. However, the Torah gave women the prerogative on this Mitzvah, as with Shabbat candle lighting and the laws of Mikvah and Family Purity, and typically women are the ones who separate the Challah. There is a special blessing made before the Challah separation, thanking Hashem for the Mitzvah to separate Challah. There is a minimum amount of dough that requires the Mitzvah to be fulfilled. If dough is made with more than 3 lbs. 11 oz. of flour, then there is the full obligation to separate Challah with the blessing. If the dough contains less than that amount but more than 2 lbs. 11 ozs., Challah is separated without a blessing, and challah is not separated if the dough is smaller than that.

A Jewish bakery also must separate Challah, and many people buy commercial Challah for Shabbat. There are many women, however, who make a point of baking their own Challah, in order to fulfill this great Mitzvah. The Mitzvah of Challah is a part of the greater Mitzvah of sanctifying our food and making sure it is appropriate to eat according to the laws of the Torah. What we ingest has an impact on our bodies and our souls. Just as good food is necessary for our bodies to function well, food that is prepared according to the laws of Kashrut enhance our soul’s ability to express itself fully and enables us to fulfill our mission of making the physical world a home for Hashem.

There are many more details of this Mitzvah, and I encourage you to study more about it. You can start here. May we soon merit the rebuilding of the Holy Temple and once again share our bread with the kohanim.

Parshat - Beha'alotecha

When we think of the 40 years that the Jewish people spent in the desert from the time they left Egypt until the time they arrived in Israel, most people I know define this time as a time of strife, complaining and disrespect. In the Biblical stories, we see the various problems that came up – the Golden Calf, the complaining about lack of water and food, the request for meat, the rebellion of Korach, and of course the story of the spies that caused them to be stuck there for 40 years in the first place. In fact, the Torah says that the people tested Hashem ten times. But the truth is that rather than framing their entire experience in the desert as negative, there is another whole story that is also written in the Torah that we don’t often focus on.

One of the stories told in this week’s Parsha, Beha’alotcha, is the way the decision was made to camp in a certain place and how long to stay there before the next journey. There was no council of elders deciding this, nor was it the decision of the leadership or a consensus of the people. The Torah tells us of a cloud that rested above the Mishkan (Sanctuary), and when the cloud would lift, the people would pack up and travel in the direction that the cloud led them. When the cloud settled, they would camp. Imagine what it took to set up camp. 600,000 families had to set up their tents and unpack. The Levi’im (Levites) would set the Mishkan up. Huge beams, long poles, hundreds of feet of cloth, goats’ hair and leather roof coverings, curtains, hundreds of feet of screens and pegs for the courtyard, furniture, all the utensils and all the many items necessary for the sacrifices. 

When you go on vacation, how much unpacking do you do? I would imagine that it depends on how long you are staying in the same place. If you are going to spend a while in the same hotel or on a cruise, you unpack everything from the suitcases. If you are just spending a night at a motel on your way, you might just take out whatever you need for the night. Well, all of the unpacking and setting up camp that the Jews did in the desert, including the huge job of setting up the Mishkan, was done without knowing how long they would be staying. As the Torah describes, sometimes it would be only for a long time, and sometimes as short as day and a night! Yet the Jews followed the instructions from Hashem without complaining and, in good faith, set up the camp when shown by the cloud and took it down again whenever the time came.

Another major expression of faith was that they would go to bed every night with no food to eat, knowing that the next morning when they woke up there would be Mann – the heavenly bread that fell each morning – for them to eat. Here again, 600,000 families in the desert going to bed every night without a scrap of food to eat, none of them going to the neighboring countries to find provisions, simply trusting that Hashem would provide for them.

This was a powerful lesson for the people after they had questioned their ability to follow Hashem’s instructions to capture the land. They now experienced the direct involvement that Hashem had in their lives, going where He led them and eating what He directly provided for them. This foundation of faith was a lesson for all times. When we live in a home and eat food that we grow, we often forget about Hashem’s involvement in providing for us. The Torah teaches us that although we may not see it with our physical eyes, in fact where we end up is Hashem’s decision and what we eat is provided by His blessing. We have the choice to live with this faith or not, and we have the choice to do whatever we want when we get to wherever we are. But recognizing this lesson, we are more open to recognizing that Hashem is bringing us to a place for a mission, and our life fulfillment comes from fulfilling that mission, as directed in the Torah.

Parshat - Nasso

First of all, I wish a hearty Mazal Tov to my son and daughter in law, Rabbi Zalman and Devory, on the birth of their son on Tuesday. The Bris will be, with Hashem’s help, on Tuesday morning at 8 at the Chabad Center of Palo Alto. A Bris is a unique event, celebrating the essential bond that Hashem made with the Jewish people, beginning with the covenant with our forefather Abraham. We don’t wait until the boy is old enough to make a rational decision about the Bris, because our bond with Hashem is beyond rationale and is unconditional. Regardless of how a Jew lives, his or her bond with Hashem can never be broken. (While girls are obviously not circumcised, G-d forbid, the Talmud tells us that this does not mean that they are left out of the covenant. Rather they carry the covenant automatically, without the need for human intervention.)

Our tradition tells us that Elijah the Prophet comes to every Bris, and that there is a spiritual light that surrounds the parents on this day. Throughout the ages we have steadfastly kept this Mitzvah, even under threat of death by our enemies, who have from time to time outlawed the practice. My own grandfather was a Mohel in the Soviet Union, and was ultimately murdered by Stalin’s regime for “counterrevolutionary activities.” 

An interesting fact about a Bris is that it is customary not to explicitly invite people. The reason for this is that the Bris is such a holy event that one cannot turn down the invitation. In order not to create pressure for someone who can’t make it, we only notify them of the event, and the notification implies an invitation. 

The Mitzvah is for the Bris to be done on the eighth day. The mystical reason for that is that the number eight represents that which is above nature, as is the Bris, as I mentioned above. Seven represents the seven days of the week - the limits of time. Seven is also the number of Divine attributes with which the world was created, and the corresponding seven emotions of a human being. (This is all discussed at length in Chassidus and Kabbalah.) Eight, the number above seven, therefore represents that which is above nature. The first time the presence of Hashem was revealed in the desert sanctuary after the Torah was given was on the eighth day after its construction, and we find this theme in other areas of spiritual life. 

Modern science has identified a scientific reason for the Bris on the eighth day. It turns out that Vitamin-K is a necessary component in blood clotting. The levels of Vitamin-K grow for the first days of life, and peak on the eighth day. On that day the Vitamin-K level is the highest it ever gets in a lifetime. Of course we do it on that day because of our tradition of following the Torah, but it is nice to see another example of how modern science is slowly catching up to what the Torah has taught for thousands of years. I’m looking forward to celebrating this great event on Tuesday together with our friends and community members.

Parshat - Bemidbar Shavuot

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We are about to celebrate a great, joyous and uplifting three-day weekend. Shabbat is immediately followed by the Holiday of Shavuot, the celebration of the Giving of the Torah. We take time off work, we pray and sing praises to Hashem, we relax, eat festive meals including cheese-cake and meat (not in the same meal, of course), and spend at least one night in Torah study. The traditional blessing for this Holiday is: May you receive the Torah with joy and internalize it. The day of Shavuot is referred to in the Torah as “the wedding day” between Hashem and the Jewish people, so it is a day of great joy. In fact, it is one of the few days on the calendar when we are not allowed to fast under any circumstances.

Let’s stop to think about this for a moment. What exactly are we celebrating? What is the Torah? Most people associate the Torah with a set of rules, 613 Mitzvot to be exact, plus seven Rabbinic laws, each of these containing untold numbers of details. To follow the Torah means to be restricted from many things that the rest of the world does every day, and to be obedient to Hashem in a way that impacts every aspect of our lives. If we had not received the Torah, would our lives not have been much easier? We would not have this “yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” and all the restrictions that it implies. So what are we so happy about?

Think about a wedding. It is the happiest day in the couple’s life, and the celebration is like no other. Many guests come and dance and celebrate with the bride and groom, with lavish food and drink and musicians, flowers and so much more. What exactly are they celebrating? Until now they have each been free to live as they wish. They could go where they wanted, when they wanted. They could eat whatever and whenever they felt like it, dress as they wish, travel anytime to anywhere without having to consult with a partner. Now after the wedding, they will be restricted in all those areas and more. Everything they do, they will have to consider how it impacts their spouse and then their kids. So what are they so happy about?

The answer, of course, is that they are creating a relationship, a bond that will bring true satisfaction to their lives. To love and to be loved, to share ups and downs, and to create new life that will continue the chain of humanity into the next generation. All of these “restrictions” are actually bringing new meaning to life. While it is true that they will be facing a much more controlled existence, at the wedding we all celebrate the relationship and the value it brings to the couple, their future family and their loved ones. We recognize that the restrictions are in fact the springboard for a truly meaningful life.

That is Shavuot. Hashem created this world as a place where He is concealed. Without the concealment, we would not have free choice. As stated in Kabbalah and Chassidus, it was necessary for Hashem to hide His light in order to allow for the limits and division that define our material world. Hashem could have left it at that and never allowed us, finite physical humans, to connect to the infinite. Instead Hashem chose to have a relationship with us and allow us to have a relationship with Him. What greater joy can there be than that of knowing that we have the ability to break through the concealment and bond with the source of all life. Yes, we are restricted in what we do and how we live, but that all brings true meaning to our lives. This is the greatness of the Giving of the Torah, the day that we are given the opportunity to have a direct relationship with our Creator. Each Mitzvah that we do and each forbidden act we refrain from doing, strengthens that relationship and lifts us out of our limited selves and connects us to the infinite. Now that is something to celebrate!

I invite you to enhance your Shavuot experience by joining us for the many celebrations that we offer at Chabad. May you receive the Torah with great joy, and internalize it.

Parshat - Behar-Behukotai

Israel needs our help.  If someone told you that you have the ability to do something that will enhance the security of our brothers and sisters in Israel, what would you say?  I believe that you would jump at the opportunity.  What if I told you that it can take as little as a couple of minutes?  How much more so!  And what if I told you that it will cost you nothing, you don’t have to travel, and if you don’t know how to do it there is someone nearby willing and eager to help you?  How could anyone refuse such an offer!  The only catch is that it takes a little faith.  Not faith in some new idea that someone has come up with, but faith in a 3,300-year-old tradition that has been part of our core belief through all the generations. 

So what is this little thing that I can do to help the beleaguered people of Israel who are facing fire raining down from the sky, G-d forbid? The Talmud quotes the verse (Devarim 28:10): “[They] will see that the name of Hashem is… upon you and they will fear you,” and adds (Berachot 6a): “These are the Tefillin that go on the head.” We have always recognized that in addition to our need to take steps to protect ourselves, like strengthening the heroic forces of the IDF, we have the spiritual protection of Hashem who has sworn to not allow the Jewish people to be destroyed. This is what we say in the Haggadah ion the well-known song “Vehi She’amda,” that this promise has stood by us through all the generations of persecution and attempts to wipe us out.  

So while our prayers and best wishes go out to the people of Israel, and especially the soldiers who risk their lives to protect the people and the land, we can each do something about it. It takes two minutes to put on Tefillin. If you have them at home, please try to do it as often as possible. If you don’t have Tefillin or don’t know how to do it, please contact me or any Chabad rabbi and we will be happy to help you with it. This is a way to make a real difference.

While Tefillin is a Mitzvah specifically for men, there is a special Mitzvah for women too that brings Hashem’s protection to our people and that is the Mitzvah of Shabbat candles. Our sages have taught that when a woman lights the Shabbat candles (at the right time, before sunset), the holy light brings peace to the home. Since what each of us does impacts the entire Jewish people, this peace extends beyond the individual home to encompass all of our people, including those in Israel.

There was once, in a Russian town, a serious threat to the Jewish people. The community met to discuss what to do about it. One of the people said: We can’t just rely on miracles, we have to do something practical, so let’s pray. To us, the power of a Mitzvah is not just a mystical idea, but is something practical that we have recognized through the ages as truly bringing us blessings and protection. So let’s all do something. Do a Mitzvah and pray to Hashem that He protect all our people and help overcome the enemies today, just as He helped us overcome the ancient Persian tyrant Haman.

Parshat - Emor

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Today, Thursday is Lag Ba’Omer. The day is so named because it is the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, the daily count that stretches for 45 days, from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot. The Hebrew letters for 33 are lamed (30) and gimel (3), which spell Lag. On this day, one of the greatest sages of all time, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away. It is very interesting that while the anniversary of a person’s passing is generally a sad day, this day is referred to as “hillula deRashbi – the “wedding celebration” of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The term “hillula,” is also used to describe the anniversary of passing of other truly righteous people - Tzadikim.  How does a day like this get named for a wedding? There is a beautiful explanation given by the Rebbe, and you can watch it here. You can read more about this particular day, Lag Baomer, here.  

Lag Baomer is a day of great celebration, especially for children. It is customary for the kids to go on a field trip to open space, and in many communities this day is marked with a “Parade of Jewish Pride.” You can see several videos of the “Great parade” held in New York here. There is so much good information on Lag Baomer in these sources, that anything I can write seems shallow in comparison, so I am providing the resources rather than writing myself today. 

I hope you will join us for the wonderful family Lag Baomer celebrations at Chabad today, and may the great spiritual light of this day inspire us all to reach higher toward our inner spiritual essence, to connect to our true purpose and mission, and to reveal the ultimate purpose of all of creation.

Parshat - Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

The Torah gives us many instructions on how to relate to one another, the overarching Mitzvah being “Ve’ahavta Lere’acha Kamocha,” love your fellow as yourself, written in this week’s Parsha (the second of two), Kedoshim. There is a positive Mitzvah to return a lost item, to return a stolen item, to help someone load or unload their animal, and many other instructions that the Torah gives that require us to act in order to help another. It is therefore intriguing that one of those Mitzvot, one on which life and death may hinge, is written differently, in the negative. “Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa,” do not stand by when your fellow bleeds. Why would the Torah not say: “Save your fellow’s life?” 

The great commentator Rashi, in explaining this verse, writes: Do not stand by your fellow’s blood - to see his death and you are able to save him or her, for example if on who is drowning in a river or a robber is about to attack. Rashi, in his great wisdom and unique writing style, uses a couple of words that give us insight into the answer to our question. It seems obvious that we have to help save a person’s life. If the Torah tells us to help protect another person’s property, how much more so their life? So that kind of goes without saying. What this verse is dealing with is a situation where one might believe that he or she should not act, because there may be some danger involved. The Torah is telling us, says Rashi, that even I a case of potential danger, IF YOU ARE ABLE TO SAVE THE PERSON, do not stand by. The implication being that in a case where your efforts will be futile, you do not need to put yourself in danger.

The Rebbe taught a deeper meaning to this verse and Rashi’s interpretation. If we look carefully at Rashi’s words, we can read it as follows: To see your fellow’s death, you are able to save him or her. If Hashem put us in a situation that we see another person in trouble, the very fact that we are present to see it, means that we are able to help. We believe that what happens around us is by Divine Providence, and if we are in a certain situation, it is by Hashem’s will that we be there and act if necessary. Sometimes it is a test of our ethics and morals, and sometimes it is an opportunity for us to earn a great mitzvah by stepping in and helping another, perhaps saving their lives.

We may be in a situation where we see someone bleeding, literally or figuratively, perhaps emotionally or spiritually. We might think, why do I need to get involved? Why is it my business? The Torah tells us that we may not stand by and ignore the problem. As Rashi says, if you see it, it means you can help. In fact, Hashem wants you to help. We live in a generation when many of our youth are in despair, despite the affluence in which we live. We can’t be apathetic. If we see a person struggling in life, it is our responsibility to reach out and help them. The same applies to our youth who may not feel their connection to our heritage. This is a form of spiritual bleeding, allowing the soul’s life-force to go neglected. Each of us, the Torah says, has an obligation to not stand by idly, but to do something to bring our lost souls back to Jewish life.

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. 

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