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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Vaetchanan


Today I want to talk about honoring parents. What is the connection with this week?  Before Moshe passed away, he spent the last 40 days of his life repeating the Torah to the Jewish people and charging them with the Mitzvot that they were to observe in the Land of Israel. Among other things that we read in this week’s Parsha is Moshe’s repetition of the Ten Commandments, the fifth of which is “Honor your father and your mother.”

 

I am going to go out on a limb and write some things that many people might find controversial. (The truth is that this is nothing new.  The Rebbe, his father-in-law the previous Rebbe, and the leaders of Chassidus throughout the ages have taught this, I believe, but many of us were not listening, and a lot of pain has been caused by that.) 

 

This Mitzvah of honoring parents was chosen by Hashem as one of the ten primary Mitzvot (out of 613) that He Himself spoke on Mount Sinai and that He inscribed on the holy Tablets. On a basic level it is showing appreciation to our parents for what they did for us, or even if we feel they did nothing for us, we owe our existence to them. But more than that, they were partners with Hashem in our creation, and this puts our reverence for them on a much higher level.

 

It is the parents’ responsibility to educate their children to be a “mensch” and to follow the path that the Torah teaches us in order to fulfill our mission on earth as Jews. This education includes teaching them this Mitzvah of honoring parents.  It is not possible or fair to make broad statements about an entire group of people, but I think it is safe to say that many people in recent generations taught this concept by setting rules and demanding respect. Children who questioned their parents, and certainly those who challenged them, were often told sternly that they need to respect their parents and to watch their mouths. I also think it is safe to say that most kids in previous generations accepted that as a given and for the most part it kind of worked. (And of course there were those who just ran away or the parents just gave up.)

 

Every generation has said that we live in a different generation, but I think we can agree that we live in a completely different world than before. The internet and social media have changed the world. Children today don’t need their parents or teachers to tell them about the world. In addition, popular culture leans heavily toward rejecting parents and blaming them for every ill anyone has.  Like the story of the elderly lady who bragged to her friends that her son spends thousands of dollars just on her!  He meets with an expensive therapist twice a week and all he talks about is her!

 

How do we teach our children respect for us in this environment? (What I am writing is the tip of the iceberg.  It would require at least a six-hour seminar to properly discuss the issues.)  Demanding doesn’t work. I think that in today’s world, the way we teach our children to respect us is by showing them that we notice them and care about them. In our busy day we need to stop and listen - really listen - to our children. We must hear their struggles and not judge them, but guide them gently and lovingly, giving them the inner strength and courage to help them overcome and thrive. We must notice them. Notice the good in them and help nurture that.  Express to them how we notice the steps they take to do the right thing.  Show them that we have faith in them and not constantly berate them for the mistakes they make. We are all human and make mistakes. It is important for our children to know that we love them unconditionally for who they are and will never reject them if they stray. They have to know that if they express frustration with us, we will try to understand what is bothering them and accept responsibility for what we can do to help them, including recognizing the unintended impact of our actions and being willing to change our approach. If we can treat our children like this, the chances are much greater that they will respect us. In our time people respect honesty and vulnerability. Parents who are honest and vulnerable gain their children’s respect much more than those who demand blind respect. This is the formula, in our age, to fortify our children, to help them buck the trend and live a meaningful life according to Torah, and yes, to raise children who truly respect their parents.

Devarim

This Saturday night and Sunday is the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av.  It is actually the tenth of the month, but since we do not fast on Shabbat (with the exception of Yom Kippur), the fast is postponed for a day.  Nevertheless, it is still customary to call the day Tisha B’Av, since that is the original day of the fast.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, there were many sad events that happened on this day, the most central, and the main focus of the day, being the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. 


On this day we fast, from sunset on the eve of Tisha B’Av until nightfall the next day.  How do we deal observe this  Shabbat?  It is the ninth day of Av, the day of the destruction, but it is Shabbat, a day of joy.  Our sages have taught that not only should we not mourn on this day, but in order to show that we are not mourning on observance of the Shabbat we should increase our observances.  While during the nine-day mourning period we don’t drink wine or eat meat, on this Shabbat day we make sure to do so (if we are meat eaters).  We wear festive Shabbat clothes, and do not change our shoes to non-leather as we would do on a regular Tisha B’av.


This concept of celebrating this Shabbat is consistent with a teaching of the holy sage and Chassidic Master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Bardichev regarding the name of this Shabbat, Shabbat Chazzon  The simple understanding of why it is called Shabbat Chazzon is that Chazzon, meaning vision, is the first word of the Haftorah (reading form the Prophets) for this Shabbat.  The Haftorah relates the prophet Isaiah’s “vision” and warning to the Jews of the impending destruction of the Holy Temple.  Rabbi Levi Yitzchak says that there is a deeper and currently relevant meaning to “Shabbat Chazzon” - every soul has a vision of the future Third Temple, which our sages have taught it “built and decorated” in the spiritual worlds and ready to come down physically to earth when the time comes.


Rabbi Levi Yitzchak gave an analogy.  A monarch had a beautiful, exclusive and expensive jacket made for his young son.  The son did not know how to appreciate its value and did not take proper care of it, and the jacket was ruined.  So the monarch had another jacket made, and his son destroyed this one too.  So the monarch had a third jacket made, but this time he did not give it to his son.  He showed it to him and told him that when he learns how to properly appreciate the jacket, he will give it to him.  Every once in a while the monarch would show his son the precious jacket in order to motivate him to improve his behavior and be worthy of wearing the jacket.


This, says Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, is the meaning of the vision of Shabbat ChazonHashem built us two Holy Temples and through our sins we were not worthy of them and they were destroyed.  He has built the Third Temple, and every year on this Shabbat before Tisha B’av Hashem shows us the Temple, to motivate us to do the final work to bring the world for redemption.  So how does that relate to us, simple people who don’t physically see the Temple?  Certainly our souls see this vision, and the feeling filters down in some way to our subconscious mind, but how do we relate to it in a concrete way?


People generally think that our present is based on our past.  I can write a lot on this subject, but let me just assert that this is not so.  Our present is actually based on our future.  I would almost guarantee that if you knew with absolute certainty that next week you will win $1M in the lottery, you would not behave today as you are now.  You know you won’t win it, and therefore you are behaving as if you will not win it.  This is true of life in general.  The problem is that we ascribe our past to our future.  We get stuck in a rut of the past, and we assume that our future will be the same, so we keep on doing what we have always done.  If, however, we can create a completely new future in our minds, and by our words, then we can break out of our rut and make that future happen.  This is what vision means, the ability to envision a new future that is completely new.  This is how leaders create completely transform themselves, their companies, and perhaps the world.


I think that this is the purpose of our soul’s vision of the third Holy Temple.  If we can tap into that vision, realizing that on this Shabbat we are given special spiritual support to “see” the Temple and the glorious revelation that it represents, we can pull ourselves out of exile and be truly motivated to do our part to make the world a better place.  It could be the one Mitzvah that we do today that tips the balance of the world to righteousness and redemption.  This is something to celebrate!


You are welcome to join us at Chabad for a festive lunch at 12:15 on Shabbat, and for Tisha B’av services, details here.  May we merit the coming of Moshiach immediately, and Tisha B’Av will be a great holiday, celebrated in the third Holy Temple. 

Matot-Masei

The Jewish month of Av begins tonight. This is the beginning of the nine-day mourning period leading up to the day of the destruction of the Holy Temple on Tisha B’av. This year, since the ninth of Av is on Shabbat, we fast on the day after, so it is a ten-day period. During this time we observe laws of mourning. We don’t launder any clothes and don’t even wear any freshly laundered outer clothes. It is customary to change our clothes several times today in order to have clothes that have been warn at least for a few minutes to wear over the next week. This restriction does not apply to Shabbat. We also do not eat meat or drink wine or grape juice, except on Shabbat when it is a Mitzvah to do so. Showering or bathing is permitted for health and sanitation but not for pleasure. For more on the restrictions during the Nine Days see here

 

On the other hand, during this time it is customary to study the laws of the building of the Holy Temple in Mishna and Rambam, as well as Ezekiel’s prophecies regarding the building, in order to transform the mourning into a positive step forward toward the rebuilding. It is also customary to celebrate the conclusion of a tractate of Talmud, an event that brings joy and is permitted, and encouraged, during these days of mourning. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the purpose of the mourning is not to get depressed but to propel us forward to do what is necessary to bring about the transformation of the darkness to light.

 

We find this theme also in the Parsha this week. We read the double Parsha of Matot and Masei. The word “masei” means journeys, and the first section of that Parsha outlines in detail the 42 places that the Jews camped in the desert on their way from Egypt to Israel. “The Jews traveled from Raamses to Sukkot…, they travelled from Sukkot to Eitam…, 42 stops until the last stop in the plains of Moab. Every word in Torah is exact and part of the lesson on how to live our lives according to our Divine mission. Sometimes a word seems to us to be out of place or even inaccurate, and study reveals that it is intentionally so in order to send us a message. Here we have such an example. The Torah enumerates 42 places where the Jews camped in the desert, yet these camps are referred to as “journeys.” Since the focus of the Parsha is to tell us each place they camped, it would seem more accurate to say: “These are the places where the Jews camped” and the Parsha may have been named “Machanot” (camps). Why are these camps called journeys?

 

There are several explanations given by our Sages, here is one that is relevant to the theme of the Nine Days. Although  at each of the camps the Jews set up the sanctuary and “dug in” for as long as they stayed there, in one place for as long as 18 years, each of the camps was part of the journey toward Israel. 

In other words: If you are aiming to reach a destination and along the way you decide to stop for a while to live in another place, the time you spend at the stop is delaying your journey. However, if you are stopping to pick up supplies for the rest of the journey, the stop is actually part of the trip. Another analogy: Imagine you decide to walk from point a to point b, and instead of walking forward you take a few steps back. You have delayed your arrival to your destination and you can’t say that you have started moving forward. Now imagine you are standing in front of a large obstacle that you have to jump over and you take a few steps back in order to make the jump. Those steps back are not delaying you, they are indeed necessary for you to make progress.

The decision to stop at each place in the desert, we are told previously in the Torah, (Shemot 40:36-37) was by Divine decree. Each stop was a necessary break for the Jews to prepare for their next journey ultimately reaching their destination in Israel. So rather than considering each stop a delay, the Torah tells us that in fact these camps were “journeys,” because they were necessary preparatory stops for the rest of the journey. 

 

This is also the way we should see the mourning of the Holy Temple and our bitter, long exile. In the journey this universe has been on since Creation, moving from a place of darkness to the revelation of the Divine creative source of everything, we have had to endure many stops and setbacks, including the current state of exile and the lack of the Holy Temple. But we learn from Masei that each seeming setback is actually a step closer toward reaching the goal. It is in the dry, parched desert that we truly learn to appreciate the value of water. Light is so much more valuable when it emerges from darkness. 

 

By fulfilling the Mitzvot of mourning during this period, by focusing on ways to enhance our connection to the light of Hashem, and by bringing the light of Torah to the world, we are ensuring that this time in the last few moments of exile is being used as a journey toward redemption. As Rambam says, when Moshicah comes, the days of mourning will be transformed into days of celebration, because then we will see how the temporary darkness led to the much greater light to come. Our attitude, and more important our actions, matter.

Pinchas

It’s always special to celebrate a holiday.  Time off work and school, special food, family gatherings and community events are all wonderful.  Spiritually each holiday has special prayers and observances that uplift us, and give us the inspiration to carry the message of the holiday forward throughout the year.  Yet with all of that there is something missing. 

Last week, I wrote about the great loss of the Holy Temple that we mourn at this time of year.  This loss is especially felt on holidays. In ancient Israel, the holidays were accompanied by many special offerings in the Temple. Each holiday had its unique offerings, besides the personal offerings that each family would bring when traveling to Jerusalem three times a year.  There were also special offerings on Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. These offerings are called “Musafim” – additional sacrifices, and are the subject of the latter part of this week’s Parsha, Pinchas.  

Today when we don’t have the Holy Temple and can’t offer the sacrifices, the “Mussaf” prayer has taken the place of the offerings.  

All of the above offerings were in addition to the daily communal offering of a sheep every morning and afternoon.  These sheep were offered regularly 365 days a year, on weekdays, Shabbat, and on all holidays including Yom Kippur. Today, the prayers of Shacharit (morning prayer) and Mincha (afternoon prayer) are in their place.  Ma’ariv, the evening prayer, was established in place of the burning of the sacrifices on the altar, which often happened at night. The verse says (Bamidbar 28:2-4): “Command the Jewish people …. they shall observe my offering in its time …. two sheep every day constantly …. one sheep you shall make in the morning, and a second sheep you shall make in the afternoon.“ 

There is a fascinating Midrash quoted in the great book “Ein Yaakov” which contains all the stories and Aggada of the Talmud.  The Midrash says that there was a discussion among the sages as to which verse is the most significant in the Torah.  

One sage said it is the verse that tells us that Hashem created humankind.  Another said it is: “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”  Another said is: “Hear o Israel, the L-rd your G-d, the L-rd is one.”  A fourth sage said it is the verse: “One sheep you shall make in the morning and another sheep you shall make in the afternoon.”  All the sages agreed that this is indeed the most significant verse in the Torah.  

What is the meaning of the midrash?  How can the offering of a sheep twice a day carry more significance than G-d’s creation of humankind or the great principle of loving one another or the unity of G-d?  The great sage and mystic known as the Maharal of Prague explained as follows. While the great ideas of G-d’s unity, the fact that He is the Creator of all beings and the need for human dignity and respect are all vital, what has kept Judaism alive through all the generations is the consistency of the daily offerings to Hashem.  Chassidus explains at great length that the purpose of an animal sacrifice is to connect us to Hashem, to bring us close and bond us to our Creator. (I can’t go into this concept at length here, but it is explained very well in many places.) When a holiday comes along we feel inspired. When a friend needs something we step up and help.  But the idea of bringing an offering equally every day, twice a day, no matter the day – weekday, Shabbat, holiday – and no matter the mood we may be in, it is this consistency that keeps our deep bond with Hashem.  

If a couple in a marriage goes out of their way to celebrate their anniversaries and birthdays, and to be there for each other when they need something from each other, that is nice and important.  But it is the day to day little actions that we do for each other, especially at times when we really don’t feel like it, that truly connects us and builds a deep and lasting love.

Nowadays, as I said above, we don’t have the animal sacrifices, and we try to create that bond through prayer.  Prayer is a time for us to realize that we are here because Hashem put us here with a mission, a time to focus on this mission and to reach up to Hashem and bond with Him.  When we do that a few times a year, it is a wonderful expression of our connection to our Jewish roots. When we do it daily, morning, afternoon and night, even at times when we are really not in the mood to pray and not necessarily thinking about Hashem at that moment, our bond with Hashem permeates every part our life.  This bond then translates into action, because every day we are thinking about our mission and purpose.


Balak

 This weekend, a period known as ”The Three Weeks” begins.  It is a three-week period of mourning, bookended by the fast of the 17th of Tamuz and the fast of the ninth of Av.  On the 17th of Tamuz in the year 69 CE, the Romans, who had laid siege to the City of Jerusalem, broke through the wall and entered the city, and three weeks later on the ninth of Av destroyed the second Temple. The first Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians on the ninth of Av in the year 423 BCE.  (The Jerusalem Talmud says that the Babylonians also breached the wall of the city on the 17th of Tamuz.)  So the primary reason for mourning at this time is because of the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples, but the sad significance of those two days dates back much earlier.  You will recall that when Moshe went up to heaven (by way of Mt. Sinai) to receive the Torah, he came back after 40 days carrying the two Tablets made by Hashem that contained the Ten Commandments.  When he saw the Golden Calf that the Jews were worshipping, he smashed those tablets, and a difficult period ensued.  Many Jews were executed and Moshe spent another 40 days praying and achieving atonement for the people.  The day he broke the Tablets was the 17th of Tamuz.  There were three other major calamities that happened on that day relating to the Temple and its service.  The daily offerings of two lambs, which brought many blessings to the people and the world, ended.  Apostemus (some say he was a Roman general, others say he was a Greek) publicly burned the Torah, and an idol was placed inside the Temple.  (There are differences of opinion about when exactly in history this happened.  Some say during the Roman period and others say by King Menashe.)

The Ninth of Av also has a sad history going back centuries.  The Jews had recently left Egypt and received the Torah, and were ready to enter the Holy Land promised to them by Hashem.  They sent spies to scout out the land, and the spies came back with a bad report about the land, frightening the  Jews.  The nation cried that night, losing their faith and giving up hope on Hashem’s promise.  Hashem declared that that night, the ninth of Av, would be a night of “crying for generations.”  A few of the historic tragic events that happened on this night include the defeat of the city of Betar during the Bar Kochba revolt and the brutal killing of its Jewish inhabitants in the year 133 CE, and the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.

The first and last days of the Three Weeks are fast days.  The 17th of Tamuz is a fast from dawn until nightfall, and the Ninth of Av is a 25 hour fast, from sunset the evening before until nightfall.  This year, since both days, the 17th of Tamuz and the ninth of Av fall on Shabbat, a day when we are not allowed to fast unless it is Yom Kippur, both fasts are postponed to the next day, effectively postponing the mourning period for a day.

A few of the observances of this period include not marrying during this time, refraining from haircuts, purchasing new clothes, listening to music or arranging or attending major celebratory events.  The mourning intensifies for the last nine days, beginning on the first day of Av, when we do not eat meat or drink wine (except for on Shabbat).  We also do not say the Shehecheyanu blessing during this time, meaning that we refrain from things that require this blessings, such as eating a fruit for the first time during the new season.

It is important to note that mourning does not mean that we should be depressed or in any way diminish our inner joy in observance of Mitzvot.  Since it is a Mitzvah to “serve Hashem with joy,” this must mean that we can have both at the same time.  We cut back on external expressions of joy, but at the same time we recognize the value of even these Mitzvot of mourning and they bring us inner joy in the knowledge that all Mitzvot connect us to Hashem and fulfill our mission on earth.  I know it sounds like a paradox, but it really is not.  Our purpose in mourning is to remind us what we are missing.  We tend to go about our lives comfortably enjoying our freedoms and our relative affluence, for some not so relative, and we don’t feel any real lack of exile.  When we spend three weeks focusing on the meaning of the Holy Temple and on the contrast?? between life as it should be in the Holy Land of Israel with the many daily revelations of Hashem’s light to how it is today when Hashem is hidden and the Shechina (presence of Hashem) itself is in exile; when we learn the laws of the building of the Temple and imagine how glorious life will be like when Moshiach comes and the third Temple is built, we are motivated to do all we can to bring the redemption a moment sooner.

Soldiers know that the only way to win a war is with faith and enthusiasm and a song on their lips.  We realize how much we are missing, but rather than wallowing in the sorrow, we move forward with joy and enthusiasm to turn the world into a holier and better place, because we are assured that we are moving ever closer to that time when the exile will be history.  At that time, these two days will be turned into holidays, because we will recognize that our work in exile, brought about on those two days, is what brought about the new, much greater stage of a holy world “filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the seabed.” (Isaiah 12:9.)  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a barbecue in the Holy Temple this Tisha B’Av?

Chukat

 The greatest spiritual height, we are taught, that a person can attain, is to offer his or her life for Torah.  (We used to use the term “martyr,” but since that term has been abused and coined for terrorists who kill people, the ultimate evil, the opposite of those who refuse to submit to evil, I don’t like to use it.)  For a saintly Tzaddik whose entire life was dedicated to holiness, one would imagine that the concept of Mesirut Nefesh, self-sacrifice in which the soul rises to the greatest possible spiritual levels, would be something that he or she would relish.  Of course we would never bring it upon ourselves, this would be a violation of the Torah’s laws of self-preservation, but if one was faced with this challenge, one who has Mesirut Nefesh is considered “Kadosh” – holy.

 Next Monday we celebrate the12th of Tammuz, the anniversary of the day that the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, father in law and predecessor of our Rebbe, was released from Soviet prison, where he had originally been sentenced to death for his activities of spreading Judaism.  The story of his arrest and liberation is fascinating, how he refused to submit to the Soviet authorities and how he managed to make it through the horrific ordeal in the clutches of the murderous communist “servants of the people.”  You can read about it here. 

 What I want to focus on is the previous Rebbe’s attitude toward the ordeal.  During the High Holidays of the year 1927, the previous Rebbe spoke at length about the Ba’al Shemtov’s teachings that every part of creation is controlled by Divine Providence.  Not only is it all created by Hashem, but every single aspect of creation is part of Hashem’s great plan for the universe.  If a single blade of grass blows in the wind, taught the Ba’al Shemtov, it is by design and part of Hashem’s plan for the world.  (Science has recently discovered the fact that every aspect of the planet is interconnected to the ecology of the whole planet, catching up to what has been written in the Torah for thousands of years.)  It was in the summer of 1927 that the previous Rebbe was arrested and almost murdered.  He himself later expressed that it was those teachings that helped him live through the terrible ordeal of his arrest.

 Our Rebbe was not only the previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, but also his closest student, chassid and confidant.  He commented on this sentiment of the previous Rebbe, based on what I wrote in the first paragraph.  With his intimate understanding of the previous Rebbe’s approach to life, he said, the previous Rebbe had no personal problem with any of the suffering or challenges that he went through.  In fact, on one level, this was the greatest level of holiness he had attained, as I wrote above.  What bothered him was the fact that he was not able to continue his work of spreading Judaism.  As a quintessential Jewish leader in the mold of Moshe (as I wrote last week), his only concern was the people.  Although the restrictions placed on him were not of his doing and beyond his control, he nevertheless felt the pain of the lack of spiritual inspiration that would negatively affect the community.  In that oppressive time, when it was a capital crime to study Torah and especially to teach it, the only way Torah continued was because of the previous Rebbe’s guidance and inspiration, and now that was lacking. 

 It was only by remembering the Ba’al shem Tov’s teaching that everything that happens is by Divine design that he was able to endure the pain.  He realized that since Hashem created and runs the world as part of His plan, this event was also part of that plan.  Indeed, while he was in prison, Chassidim intensified their work following his directives and strengthened the underground Torah activities.  More so after he was miraculously released, the chassidim received a great boost in these activities and their courage was strengthened to continue to risk their lives in order to perpetuate Judaism.

 We have seen the effects of the evil Soviet system on our people.  There are many who grew up in those countries who were afraid to admit they were Jews, and to whom, through no fault of their own, Torah observance is considered a negative and even frightening thing.  But at the same time, there was a powerful underground movement that flourished throughout the Soviet Union under the noses of the Soviet butchers that kept Judaism alive.  The moment the Soviet system collapsed, these Chabad institutions came out of hiding and today are flourishing, bringing faith back to so many from whom it was hidden.

 So the 12th of Tammuz is a celebration of not just one leader, but of the very survival of Judaism in the face of another horrible regime.  It is a day to think about how we can take this inspiration and internalize it, to help us overcome the relatively minor challenges that we face in our Torah observance. 

Naso

Growing up as a religious kid in a secular world, I was often taunted by non- or anti-religious people about my “archaic, outdated, silly,” etc. etc. religious views.  “Come on, how can you believe that silly old-fashioned stuff?”  I was taught by my parents and teachers, and firmly believed myself, that the Torah is truth, given by Hashem at Sinai to all Jews of all generations, its explanations faithfully passed down through the ages by the greatest, wisest, saintliest scholars and thinkers.  I read in Devarim (4:60 that the Torah is “your wisdom and your understanding before the nations, who will hear all these laws and say ‘How wise and understanding is this great nation.”  And yet, the world around me said otherwise and I did not have the wherewithal to combat these statements.  Scientific advances have shown that this part of the Torah is wrong or that part of the Torah is wrong.  The Torah laws really don’t make sense for our advanced and enlightened society (unless a specific law fits whatever current agenda the person may have). 

I met with a very prominent, famous Jewish psychologist a few times and we had some very interesting discussions.  He describes himself as an “Atheist.”  At one point during our last conversation, we were discussing Creation, and he asked me whether I believe that the world was created by G-d so many thousands of years ago.  When I said yes, he looked at me with a look somewhere between pity and condescension, heavy on the latter, and said: “How can a person as smart as you believe something so foolish?”  I did not retort:  How can someone as smart as you believe that suddenly, out of nowhere, some matter appeared with no source and no creator?  I just figured we have nowhere to go from here and let him have his final word.

As recently as a couple of days ago, someone wrote me (this is an exact quote):  “I have knowledge of the science of the 20th century. It allows me to question whether the rabbis making halachic decisions 500 to 1000 years ago would be changing their opinions if they were alive today.  And, I do admit to ignorance about many aspects of Judaism”.  He hit the nail on the head.  Derision of the wisdom of Torah comes from ignorance of its wisdom.  Think about it, what percentage of Jews knows the name of the mother of the founder of Christianity, and what percentage knows the name of Moshe Rabbeinu’s mother?  (This is one of the many reasons that Jewish education is so important, and while I’m at it, why you should use the summer break as an opportunity to put your child or grandchild into a Torah true camp (like Camp Gan Israel).)

Why did this come up today?  One of the things that people throughout my life have told me is old-fashioned and silly is the Jewish approach to modesty.  Modesty in dress and modesty in behavior.  How prudish and outdated it is to say that men and women (except immediate family) shouldn’t touch each other, dance together or be locked in a room alone?  We have progressed as a society, and there is no reason to keep those silly boundaries.  In this week’s Parsha we read about a “Sota”, a person who is suspected of adultery.  The word “Sota” shares a root with the word “Shtus”, which means foolishness.  Our Sages taught that there is a connection between the two, because promiscuous behavior is indeed foolish, and in general, a person only sins when they are overcome by a spirit of foolishness.  This is what I learned in Torah, while the whole world around me told me that the enlightened, civilized and intellectual way is to tear down boundaries between men and women.  Somehow protecting the lines between the genders is seen as foolish and derogatory toward women. 

Well, fast forward to our decade.  Rampant abuse in the military, on college campuses, in the revered leadership of various religions, in the work place, in the great icons of Hollywood and congress.  The entire MeToo and other movements came about because of what is happening throughout society.  So I ask you, is the Torah right that two people of the opposite gender being locked in a room alone is foolish?  Or have we moved to a more enlightened and intellectual society?

This is only one glaring example, but if we open our eyes to what is happening today in the sciences, we can see how the Torah’s truth permeates everything in existence, and slowly but surely the Torah’s teachings are being recognized as true wisdom.  (This is a much larger subject, of course, and I am only presenting one example as a glimpse.) This is all part of the lead up to the time when G-dliness will be revealed throughout the world with the coming of Moshiach.  As the Rambam concludes his book Mishne Torah: “at that time… the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the seabead.”

 

 

Bechukotai

 

Imagine that the President of the United States was coming to visit you in your home in ten days.  (No politics here, pick the President of your choice, current or former.)  Would you be going about your business as usual?  I think not.  The President of the United States chose you for a personal visit!  You would be so excited that you were chosen for this special opportunity.  You would be telling all of your friends and you wouldn’t be able to sleep.  You would start by preparing your house to be sure it is spotless and without any blemish.  You would be touching up the paint and removing anything unsightly.  You would be thinking about what food to serve and what type of dishes you need to acquire for the purpose.  You would be thinking about what to say to him, and you would be losing sleep over all the details of making the visit perfect and the President comfortable.

Well, the President, as great as he (or the position he holds) may be, is only a human being.  In about ten days, Hashem will visit each and every one of us in our home.  What do I mean by that?  On the sixth day of the Jewish month of Sivan 3,331 years ago, Hashem “came down onto Mount Sinai”  (Shemot 19:20) and gave us the Torah.  The world is our home, as it says in Tehillim  (115:16) “the earth is the domain of human beings.”  So Hashem came to visit us in our home to give us the Torah.  Let’s take this a step further.  The first three words of the Ten Commandments that Hashem spoke in Sinai are: Anochi Hashem Elokecha – I am Hashem your G-d.  Now the English language is severely limited compared to Hebrew.  The word “your” in English could be singular or plural, and I believe that almost everyone who reads the English translation of the Ten Commandments assumes that Hashem is talking to the multitude of people gathered at the foot of the mountain.  However in Hebrew, the word for “your” is different in singular and in plural, and in this case, “your G-d,” is in the singular.  Meaning, that Hashem spoke to each person as an individual. 

Chassidus explains that Hashem has a personal relationship, one on one so to speak, with each and every individual, not just as part of the collective.  If you think about it, it is a remarkable thing to realize that Hashem reached out to each individual to connect with him or her, and that therefore we can each have a direct, personal relationship with Hashem. 

That was 3,331 years ago, but actually it repeats itself every year.  The Hebrew word for year is Shana, which, consistent with the richness of the Holy language, has a few meanings, one of which is “repetition.”  Every year, the Jewish holidays, and the spiritual and mystical events that they mark repeat themselves again.  The air of freedom that permeated the world the first Pesach is revealed again every Pesach, and the great revelation of Hashem to every individual Jew on the first Shavuot is repeated every year on the sixth of Sivan.  So it is accurate to say that in about ten days, (on June 9 and 10 this year) Hashem will once again “come down” into the world, into our domain – the world, to connect and reestablish the relationship with each one of us.  So yes, Hashem is coming to visit each of us in our home.

So it would seem appropriate that we don’t just go about our business as usual, suddenly remembering on Shavuot that there is a great holiday when we received the Torah.  We would be well advised to prepare for this monumental event, to “clean our homes,” and remove the garbage, and to make sure that Hashem will be “comfortable” when He comes.  Practically speaking, this means studying extra Torah and stepping up our Mitzvah observance, reading up on the observances, customs and laws of the Holiday, and finding ways to be more conscious of our relationship with Hashem. 

There is however a major difference between a presidential visit and the visit from Hashem.  Hashem is the source of kindness and mercy, and He understands and is tolerant of human nature.  As the Torah tells us, if we just open up an entrance the size of the eye of a needle, Hashem will open for us an opening like that of a great hall.  Any small step that we take to enhance our relationship with Hashem is meaningful and brings us closer to Him.

So let’s do something tangible in our lives to prepare for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which marks the time when Judaism began.  In the words of the traditional Chassidic blessing for Shavuot, may you receive the Torah with joy and internalize it.  The more preparation, the more internalization.

Lag B'Omer

 

Tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Lag B’Omer.  It is a day of celebration for two major events in our history.  I’ll get to that in a moment, but there is an interesting question about the name of the holiday.  Lag B’Omer means the 33rd day of the Omer.  Lag in Hebrew is spelled with the letters lamed (numerical value 30 and gimel (numerical value 3), so the first word is actually a number, 33.  Omer refers to the 49 days – seven weeks that we count from Pesach to Shavuot, remembering and recreating the counting that the Jews leaving Egypt did in anticipation of receiving the Torah.  The purpose of the counting was, and is, to transform ourselves from the exile mentality, being slaves to the world around us, and to free ourselves to connect to our true purpose, as messengers of Hashem to transform the world.  The way we do this is by transforming each of our 49 character traits, one day at a time.  Lag B’Omer is on the 33rd day of this count.  It is also the 18thday of Iyar. The fact that the name of the holiday is its name in the Omer, tells us that there is a real connection between the Omer and the holiday.

As I said before, there were two events that happened on this day, both in the same era, in the times of the Roman Empire.   Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students, who died in a horrible plague of diphtheria over a period of 33 days during the Omer.  So the 33rdday of the Omer is significant in that story, because it was that day that the plague stopped.  While the significance of 33 days is apparent, this still leaves the question open, why is the holiday identified by the day in the Omer and not as the 18th of Iyar. 

The Rebbe explains that there is a special connection between the Omer and the second event that we celebrate, the passing of the great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.  We “celebrate” his passing because on the day a great sage passes, all his life work comes together and rises above, creating a powerful impact on the world.  Rabbi Shimon’s impact on all future generations was so great that we still celebrate this day in our time.  In Israel tens of thousands of people, maybe more, visit his grave in the village of Meron, and Jewish communities everywhere mark the day with bonfires, music, dancing and feasting - on food and on the Torah and deep secrets of Kabbalah that Rabbi Shimon taught.  Why is this day specifically connected to the Omer and therefore called Lag B’Omer?

As usual, the full explanation is beyond the scope of this article, but I will just write a point that will hopefully give us an insight into the Kabbalistic connection between Rabbi Shimon and the counting of the Omer.  (The Kabbalah is especially relevant today, since Rabbi Shimon was the first to reveal to others the Kabbalah that had until then never been spoken beyond the one or two leaders of each generation.)  As I said before, the purpose of counting the Omer is to refine our character traits, one day for each of the 49 traits.  (See more on this here.)  We are composed of two parts, the Divine spark and the animal tendencies.  The Divine spark is tuned into holiness and wants to be involved only in spiritual pursuits.  The animal drive within us, known as the animal soul, wants only physical and material things.  This leads the animal soul into self-centeredness, selfishness and arrogance, to name a few.  So during the Omer, in preparation for receiving the Torah, we work on refining our character.  And while we may think that the “animal soul” as the lower spiritually than the divine spark, it is precisely by refining the animal tendencies within us and harnessing them to the soul that we connect with the highest levels of holiness.  This is because Hashem’s purpose in creating the universe and the human is for that purpose: the refinement of the physical and its unification with the spiritual.

Rabbi Shimon personified this concept of the unification of the highest spiritual levels and the physical world.  He is described as a sage in such a high level that his peers and students, great sages themselves, could not relate to his holiness.  This is the mystical reason that he spent many years in a cave studying Torah, because his spiritual level was beyond the world.  Nevertheless, his students did ultimately manage to connect with him, and it was specifically through the inspiration of his greatness and holiness that they were able to transform the physical world itself and bring unity between the physical and the spiritual. 

The work of fusing the physical world with the highest spiritual energy that was set into motion by Rabbi Shimon and the writing of his book of Zohar will be completed with the coming of Moshiach.  Lag B’Omer is therefore an auspicious time for this to happen.  Looking forward.

 

Pesach Sheni

This Sunday, May 19th, is the 14th day of Iyar, Pesach Sheni.  What is Pesach Sheni, how is it celebrated and what lesson can we learn from it?  Pesach Sheni is translated as the Second Pesach.  However, we don’t need to clean the house all over again and prepare kosher for Pesach foods..  The word Pesach refers to the Festival of Passover, and also the “korban Pesach” – the lamb offering that was performed in the Holy Temple on the day before the Festival, known as Erev Pesach, the 14th of Nissan.  A few families would get together and purchase a lamb, and a member of the group would bring it to the Temple on Erev Pesach to be offered.  Parts of the animal were burned on the altar, and the rest was roasted on a spit and eaten by the group at the Seder on the 15th night of Nissan.  There are many laws relating to the Pesach offering, including restriction on who is permitted to eat it.  Only members of the group could eat that particular lamb, and they had to eat it together as a group.  The lamb had to be eaten within the boundaries of Jerusalem, well roasted, at the end of the Seder meal.  (We mark this nowadays by eating the Afikomen Matzah at the Seder.)  All males had to be circumcised in order to eat the Pesach, and also be “Tahor” – loosely translated as ritually pure.  Anyone who had had any connection to a human corpse, whether by touching, carrying, being under the same roof or attending a funeral, could not partake of the meat of the Pesach.

When the Jews left Egypt, they carried with them the remains of the 12 sons of Jacob who had been buried in Egypt, fulfilling the oath that their fathers had made to Joseph when he died.  The people who carried the remains were therefore Tamei – ritually impure, and did not have time to go through the complete seven day process of purification with the ashes of the Red Heifer.  So they were not able to eat the Pesach offering, and they felt left out of this great Mitzvah.  They came to Moshe and asked “Why should we be left out from offering the Pesach at its time?”  Moshe took their request seriously and asked Hashem what could be done for them.  In response to their sincere request to be able to participate in the Pesach, Hashem instituted Pesach Sheni – another chance, for all generations, for anyone who had been Tamei or far away on the 14th of Nissan, to fulfill the Mitzvah a month later, on the 14th of Iyar.

The laws of the Pesach Sheni are similar to that of the original Pesach in terms of who can eat it and where and how it should be eaten.  It must also be eaten with Matzah and bitter herbs, in purity, in Jerusalem, however there is no need to remove the Chametz (leavened food) from the house.  Today we don’t have the Holy Temple, unfortunately, so we don’t have the observance of the actual Pesach Sheni offering.  Nevertheless, we do mark the day by skipping the parts of the services that are skipped on holidays and special days, known as Tachnun.  It is also customary to eat some Matzah – ideally hand baked Shmura Matzah -  on this day to commemorate its special significance.

The Rebbe commented on this story and taught a powerful lesson for us today.  The people who were doing the Mitzvah of carrying the holy children of Jacob’s remains could have easily accepted that their circumstances caused them to miss this other Mitzvah.  What can you do?  Hashem gave a Mitzvah with specific restrictions to be done at a specific time, and they just didn’t make it this year. Instead they chose not to just miss the Mitzvah, but with what many would consider to be Chutzpah, they approached Moshe and demanded a chance to fulfill the Mitzvah.  And they succeeded!  Hashem gave them the opportunity to fulfill the Mitzvah, in the merit of their great yearning to not miss the Divine connection and energy that it provides.  Today we are stuck in exile, and we don’t have the Holy Temple.  Every year we miss the Pesach offering, and every day we miss the daily offerings in the Temple.  We don’t have the Divine revelations that were visible every day in the Temple, and we are missing so many other Mitzvot that we can’t observe today.  We should take cue from those righteous people in the desert.  It is important for us not to be complacent in our situation, but to pray, ask and even demand that Hashem bring Moshiach and bring back the offerings.  Every time we do this, we bring Moshiach that much closer.

Kedoshim

“Lo Tignovu” – Do not steal, is one of the many Mitzvot in this week’s Parsha, Kedoshim.  There are many forms of stealing, several enumerated in the Torah.  Brazen robbery, burglary in secret, cheating in business or withholding payment that is due.  Stealing is forbidden in any form, from any person on earth.  One of the types of stealing enumerated in the Torah is using inaccurate weights and measures.  Not only are we forbidden from using them, we are not allowed to make, purchase or own them.  If a weight or measure has been damaged in any way and is not accurate, we must destroy it.  It is very interesting that the Torah connects this particular Mitzvah, owning inaccurate weights and measures, with the Exodus from Egypt.  “You shall have honest scales, weights and measures, I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of Egypt.”  (Vayikra 19:36)   There is a lot of discussion by the Sages as to why the Torah invokes the Exodus relating to this particular Mitzvah.  Rambam says that one who denies this Mitzvah is acting as if he or she denies the Exodus, which was the beginning of all our commandments.  Why this Mitzvah in particular?  What about stealing in general, and all the other Mitzvot, are they not connected to the beginning of all the commandments?

The Rebbe gives a beautiful insight into this, and I will just paraphrase a small synopsis.  As I mentioned, this Mitzvah is not just about using inaccurate weights, but also just having them, and it is considered a serious sin.  The reason for this is that for an honest person to go out and  steal is not a common thing.  We know that what is not ours is not for us to take, and it is something that a person who wants to follow the laws of Torah, living ethically and morally, would never consider.  But we all have a constant struggle with our negative drives, known as the “Yetser Hara” –evil inclination, that is constantly seeking devious ways to lead us down the wrong path.  This is the nature that Hashem created us with, in order for us to willingly choose the right path, and for our correct choices to be the result of our own work, not given to us as a free gift.  This Yetser Hara is a part of us, and is insidious.  We know that an honest person will not be persuaded to steal, so instead the process begins with something innocuous like having a weight or measure that is slightly off.  From having it comes using it, and as that becomes a habit, from there the slippery slope could end in outright stealing. 

So the prohibition of having inaccurate weights and measures is to protect us not only from acting negatively, but also from entertaining the possibility of doing so.  Negative potential can lead to negative action, so we must protect ourselves at the very beginning from any negative trait.  This is the message of the connection to the Exodus, the beginning of all commandments.  Rambam is explaining that we need to protect ourselves at the very beginning - to constantly monitor our feelings to ensure that we don’t adopt negative traits that may lead us to disrespect another person or their property.

The name of the Parsha is “Kedoshim” – be holy, and this Mitzvah is part of this holiness.  Holiness is not only what happens in the Synagogue, the Yeshiva or on Shabbat.  True holiness means to behave in our daily activities with honesty and integrity, and even more than that, to shy away from anything that may have the slightest hint of dishonesty.  When all our activities are permeated with honesty and holiness, Hashem blesses our efforts with honest income and honest abundance, so that we can continue to bring the light of honesty and holiness to the world.

Pesach

 

We are in the middle of the beautiful holiday of Pesach.  The work of getting rid of Chametz is far behind us, we have enjoyed two meaningful sedarim, evenings of family, education and spiritual uplift, and we are under the influence of several days of eating Matzah.  I know, many people make jokes about the influence of Matzah on our intestinal system, but Matzah is much more than just flat bread.  Kabbalah teaches that Matzah impacts our soul.  Everything in the physical world is sourced in the spiritual worlds.  According to the teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidus, grain is evolved from “Chochma of Atzilut.”  Atzilut is the highest of the four spiritual world in the chain of creation, where Hashem’s light is revealed and there is no room for any evil.  Each of the worlds (and the human being who is created in the image of G-d) is made up of ten attributes, the highest being Chochma.  Chochma can be translated as wisdom, or vision, or inspiration.  When there is nothing, the first flash of inspiration begins the process of the creation.  Just as in a human, when we want to do something new, we begin by thinking up an idea.  That first flash of the idea is called Chochma.  Chochma is directly affected by the soul’s essence, and is therefore an expression of the soul.  Grain’s source being Chochma, when a person eats grain it affects his or her Chochma.  I know this may not yet be medically proven, or even on anyone’s radar for research, but our Sages taught that a child cannot form his or her words without tasting grain, because the formation of words is directed by Chochma.  As usual this is just the tip of the iceberg, but trying to give an idea of the depth of the Chassidic and Kabbalistic explanation of what Matzah is all about.

 

Now there are two ways to bake grain.  One is the usual way, to let it rise, and the other is Matzah, where the dough is not allowed to rise at all.  Chochma itself is connected to and reveals the soul, but when our own emotions, habits and ego get in the way, the pure Chochma gets derailed by all of that, and we tend to follow paths that are based on ulterior motives rather than on pure truth, even our own truth.  Eating Matzah, therefore, connects us with our essence, removes the self-aggrandizing ideas that cause us to stray from our goals and purpose, and elevate us to a higher level of faith.  In fact, in the Zohar matzah is called “food of faith.”  So by now, more than half way through the holiday, we have the spiritual capacity to reach higher, to strengthen our faith and to resolve to be true to our inner self, to our purpose on earth, making the world a home for Hashem.

 

As we prepare for the last two days of Pesach, this year on Friday and Shabbat, it is important to remember the “Eruv Tavshilin” ceremony.  We take a Matzah and a cooked food on Thursday and set them aside to be eaten on Shabbat.  The procedure, along with the blessing and statement to be said, can be found here.  The reason for this Mitzvah is because we are generally not permitted to cook or prepare on the Yomtov (the first and last two days of the Holiday) for anything that is not for use that same day, sunset to sunset.  So we could not generally cook dinner for the second night on the first day.  This is a Rabbinic prohibition, and since the second day of this Holiday is Friday and we are not allowed to cook on Shabbat, the Sages who issued the prohibition in the first place permitted preparing on Friday for Shabbat if we make an Eruv Tavshilin.  You can find more about how and why this works here.

 

One more thing.  The Haftorah (passage from the Prophets that is read after the Torah reading) of the last day of Pesach is Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of Moshiach.  Our sages taught that this is because the last days of Pesach are days of celebration for the long awaited future redemption.  It is therefore customary among Chassidim to participate in a special meal in the late afternoon of the last day of Pesach, known as Moshiach’s Feast.  This custom is attributed to the Ba’al Shemtov, founder of Chassidism, who certainly was following the custom taught to him by his teachers, though in those daysit was a secret ritual.  We eat matzah and drink four cups of wine, sing songs and discuss what the world will look like when Moshiach comes, and what we can do to bring the redemption closer.  It is possible to raise ourselves above the bitterness of the exile by “seeing” and imagining the redemption, and this itself encourages us to strengthen our faith and hope, and live a positive, hopeful and elevated life.  This attitude inspires us to greater and higher pursuits, which in turn hastens the redemption.

 

I hope you will join us for the Holiday services and meals, and especially for the Moshiach Feast.  What a way to conclude this precious Holiday!

Pekudei

 

Some random thoughts relating to the building of the Mishkan (Sanctuary) in the desert that we read about in Parshat Pekudei, and the lead up to the rebuilding of the third Temple by Moshiach.

I recently noticed a feature on my phone that tells me every Sunday how much time I spent on the phone.  This week I took another look, and saw that there are a lot of statistics in addition to the total average screen time per day.  It shows how much time I spent on networking, on reading and reference, etc., and then tells me how much time I spent on each app.  Also how many times I picked up the phone, which day I picked it up the most, and what the first uses were when I picked it up.  I suppose that somewhere out there “above” in the cloud there is more detailed data, recording every detail of every action. 

A few thousand years ago, the Mishna wrote (Pirkei Avot 2:1):  “Know what is above you; an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your actions are written in a book.”  One of the things that will change when Moshiach will come is that all secrets will be revealed.  The Divine life-force of the world that is now hidden from us will be revealed, the physical will no longer hide the spiritual but will reveal it.  I remember many years ago hearing the Rebbe talk about the time before Moshiach comes as a time when there will be no secrets and everything will be revealed.  This is based on the prophecies at the end of the book of Daniel, that at “the end of time” everything will be clarified and revealed.  The Rebbe said this many decades ago, and at that time we had no idea how far this would go. 

My mother told me that when she was a little kid she read a story in a book that had been written many years before that about a great sage who lived about 250 years ago, known as the Shpoler Zeide, the sage (literally grandfather) of Shpole.  In the story at some point, the sage had a woman look in a mirror, and she saw a scene unfold that he told her was from her husband’s past life.  (Reincarnation, another whole discussion.)  She was shocked, and he told her that before Moshiach comes, there will come a time when people will do something and it will be instantly seen on the other side of the world.  Modern technology has brought us to a place that we are seeing the age old prophecies about the time right before Moshiach, that used to seem like fantastic science fiction, come to life.  The same is true of science.  Recent scientific discoveries have been falling closer and closer in line with what is written in Torah and Kabbalah. 

So it’s not surprising that in this time of no secrets and of revelations of that which is hidden, our smartphones will corroborate with what the Mishna wrote, and remind us of the true “above”, where in fact we are accountable for everything we do.  Now the question is what are we doing about it?

Vayakhel

 

At the beginning of the forming of the Jewish nation, shortly after the Torah was given at Mount Sinai and while the Jews were in the desert, Moshe gathered the entire nation together to tell them about building a Mishkan – sanctuary – as a place for Hashem’s revelation.  Moshe spoke to the people many times.  He taught them the Torah and guided them in all matters of life, including preparing them to build the Land of Israel and create a legacy for all time.  But it was rare that he gathered the entire nation together.  This was one of those times.  Building a Mishkan is not just about a house.  The whole idea of the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary that travelled with the Jews in the desert, and later the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, is to bring the presence of Hashem into the world; to transform the wood, gold and other physical materials into a receptacle for holiness.  This is the purpose of the entire creation, and this is our mission on earth, to harness the physical and use it for holy purposes, or in the words of Chassidus, to make a home for Hashem below.  This is something that every one of us must do.  There is not a single person, scholar, simpleton or in between, who does not have the privilege and responsibility to do this work.  Moshe therefore gathered the entire nation together to tell them about this great Mitzvah, to emphasize this fact that applies to everyone. 

I was ruminating about this the other day on my trip back from Hawaii where I went for the Bris of my grandson.  As I wrote last week, my daughter and her husband, Rabbi Levi and Fraidy Gerlitzkty run a Chabad House on the Big Island.  In a place with very few residents in general, and certainly very few Jews, people came together to celebrate this mitzvah that represents the bond that we have with Hashem.  I was thinking about the fact that just as at the beginning of our nation, we all needed to be gathered by our leader Moshe to include every one of us in the Mishkan, so now, at the cusp of the beginning of the new era of Moshiach, the leader of our generation, the Rebbe, set out to gather every Jew to prepare for the final redemption and the building of the eternal third Temple.  The difference is that Moshe physically gathered a captive audience surrounded by miraculous clouds in the desert, and the Rebbe had to reach out to spiritually gather individuals scattered literally all over the world.  From New York to Palo Alto to Hawaii to the Amazon rain forest and the farthest places in Africa and Asia, the Rebbe’s emissaries are doing the job of “gathering” all Jews, as we approach the physical in-gathering that will be completed when Moshiach comes.

Another event that happened this week drove this point home.  The CTeen Shabbaton brought together Jewish teens from all over the world to celebrate their Jewish identity.  What an incredible show of Jewish pride in today’s world where many Jewish teens find it difficult to navigate the new anti-Semitic environment.  For many of these teens who have no formal Jewish education, this was a life-altering event.  You can see a little of the program here, it’s worth watching.  Vayakhel is the name of the Parsha.  It means “He [Moshe] gathered.”  We are doing it again, this time under more difficult circumstances, but it is just as important.  You can be part of it.  Reach out to another Jew and tell them that they are part of it, that they have a blessed mission.  Every single one is important.  They may not know and might very well be thrilled to find out.

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.

 

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