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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Vayetzei - Blessings for Rain

 

In California nobody complains about the rain, except maybe newcomers or people in the path of mudslides.  Rain is a blessing that we need to fill up our reservoirs and aquifers, to water our forests and crops and to provide the snow melt that gives us our drinking water.  Tonight, December 5th, we start praying for rain.  There are two prayers in the Amida (silent prayer containing 19 blessings that we say three times a day) related to rain.  The first is “mashiv haruach umorid hageshem” – praising Hashem who is the one who “causes the wind to blow and brings down the rain.”  The second prayer is “veten tal umatar livracha” – asking Hashem to “give us dew and rain for blessing.” Since the first is not actually a request for rain but a praise to Hashem for this blessing, we say it throughout the rainy season, beginning on the eighth day of the Sukkot/Shmini Atzeret holiday.  The second prayer is an actual request for rain, and we therefore do not start requesting it until later in the season. For a fascinating discussion on why we start saying this prayer now, based on the secular calendar, and why it is a different time than in Israel, see here.  


What is striking about this is the fact that we pray for rain altogether.  It is part of our heritage to do so, and the Torah teaches that it is Hashem Himself who controls the rain.  The Talmud says that there are three “keys” that Hashem holds in his own hands, so to speak: birth, rain and resurrection.  A large part of the Talmudic tractate “Taanit” is devoted to the fasts and prayers that are said in Israel if there is no rain.  Is rain not a natural event brought about by the various forces of nature coming together? Evaporation, cloud formation, winds, temperature, etc. (in layman’s terms)?  Well, saying that the rain is brought about by natural forces is like saying that chickens come from the supermarket or the butcher. This is an absolutely accurate statement, but really has nothing to do with the source of the chicken, which begins with an egg and requires a tremendous amount of work, involving many people and machines, to get it to the supermarket or butcher in the first place.


Rain is formed by natural forces, but the natural forces are created and directed by Hashem.  Every drop of rain comes by Hashem’s direct Providence. Our sages discuss the difference between that land of Egypt and the land of Israel.  Egypt is the place where our ancestors were enslaved, a place described by the Torah as “the nakedness of the earth,” a place of spiritual darkness and where the Divine light is hidden.  Israel, on the other hand, is the land where “Hashem’s eyes are upon it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.” It is the land of the holy city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, a place of divine revelation.  Egypt’s water comes from the Nile river which floods and waters the surrounding fertile areas (at least before the dam was built.) Israel’s land is watered by rain. This is because in Israel, the relationship between Divine Providence and rain and material blessings is revealed.  


There is a beautiful story that I read many years ago relating to rain, fasting and blessings.  A Jew from Israel was visiting his Rebbe in Russia, and was a little down on the “simple Jews” of Israel.  The Rebbe told him not to underestimate the holiness of those “simple” Jews, and told the following story: There was a simple, unlearned farmer who live just outside of Jerusalem.  He could read Hebrew and was a devoutly observant man, but he had no idea which prayers to say on which days. (In those days there were no annotated siddurim.) Each week when he came into Jerusalem to sell his produce in the market, he would visit the Rabbi who would give him a list of which prayers to say each day.  Some days were Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month), other days were fast days, etc., and he could not handle instructions for more than a few days at a time.  


Once in the rainy season, anticipating that he may not be able to make it into town for a while, he had the Rabbi give him instructions for an entire month.  The next week he did come to town as usual, with a wagon laden with produce to sell, and to his surprise the market was empty. The rainy season was well under way and it had not rained yet, so as is our custom the community set a day of prayer and fasting and the market was closed.  The man asked where all the people were, and he was told that everyone was in the synagogue praying because it was a fast day. He was shocked and horrified that he had not known it was a fast day, and he had said the usual prayers, not those appropriate for a fast day, and this distressed him greatly.  He made his way to the synagogue, where the Rabbi was on the Bimah addressing the community, exhorting them to return to Hashem and strengthen their commitment to Torah observance. Into this serious, intense environment runs the farmer, flings open the door and yells: “Rabbi, what did you do to me?” The people were taken aback, but the Rabbi calmly asked him what the problem was.  He explained that he was upset that he the Rabbi had not told him about the fast day and he had not said the appropriate prayers.


The Rabbi calmed him down and explained that this was not a standard fast, but that a fast had been called because there was no rain.  The farmer looked at the Rabbi in astonishment and said: “because there is no rain you fast?” “What else should we do,” asked the Rabbi.  “well,” answered the farmer, “on my farm when it doesn’t rain I turn my eyes up to heaven and I tell Hashem: “I need rain for my field,” and it starts raining.  “Well,” said the Rabbi, “why don’t you try this here?” The “simple” farmer went outside, turned his eyes toward the heavens, and called out: “Father in heaven, your children need rain,” and it started raining and the drought was over.


Chayei Sarah

 You are in the middle of your workday. Appointments, phone calls, emails, documents to read and letters to send, bills to pay and deals to make. The day is short, your staff is leaving soon and other companies that you need to deal with are soon closing. But it’s almost sunset. So you stop everything and take out your Siddur (prayer book), turn to face east and pray for five minutes. (Ideally this is done with a minyan - a quorum of ten.) You prayed this morning, but that was before you started your day. You will pray again tonight, after your day is done. This prayer requires a special kind of devotion and sacrifice, this is the afternoon prayer called Mincha. The Hebrew word Mincha means a gift, and this is a gift that you give Hashem.

The first Mincha that we know is mentioned in this week’s Parsha. “Yitzchak went out to “speak” (in Hebrew “lasuach”) in the field toward evening.” (Bereshit 24:64.)  Our sages say that this was a prayer. Our three daily prayers were founded by our forefathers. Shacharit in the morning by Avraham, Mincha in the afternoon by Yitzchak and Maariv at night by Yaakov. 

Mincha is the shortest of the three prayers, but our sages tell us that it is the most powerful, because of the statement it makes. When a person is willing to stop everything in the middle of the work day to pray and connect to Hashem, he or she is affirming that the success of our work comes from Him. If it is our own expertise and work that brings us wealth, it doesn’t make sense to stop at the height of the income producing work. When we realize, however, that our work is only a part (albeit an important one) of the equation, and the outcome is ultimately determined by Hashem’s blessing. We then know that not only will Mincha not hurt our income, but on the contrary, it will bring enhanced blessings to our work.

There are many stories of the impact of Mincha and the blessings it brings. A famous one is the story of Dr Velvel Green from Minnesota who was a scientist working on the Apollo program. The local Chabad Shliach, Rabbi Feller, went to visit him in his office with a request relating to the upcoming Chabad dinner. Dr. Green was not connected to Chabad or the Jewish community and was not excited about meeting a Chassidic rabbi, and had only given Rabbi Feller a ten minute meeting. By the time Rabbi Feller went through security and got to Dr. Green’s office, the sun was setting and Rabbi Feller turned to the east and prayed. Dr. Green has never seen anything like this. He was so impressed that Rabbi Feller found praying at that time to be more important than the reason he had come, using up the precious few minutes that he had given him, Dr. Green immediately agreed to the request and a strong bond was created between them. Dr. Green gradually adopted a Torah lifestyle, and he became one of the foremost spokespersons for the synthesis of Torah and science on our generation. (I heard the story, with several more details, from Dr. Green when he visited Palo Alto.)

This concept is on my mind now because I am about to stand up and pray Mincha on a plane 35,000 feet in the air. I will face forward, because I am heading east to New York for the annual Chabad convention, where I will meet with about 4,000 of my Chabad colleagues. I am sure we will trade many stories like this one, because when people dedicate themselves to bringing this message to the world - the fact that the material world can and should be permeated with faith in Hashem as expressed by Mincha, many great things happen.

Vayera

 There is a well-known, perplexing story in this week’s Parsha, the story of Lot’s wife (according to some sources her name was Idit), who turned into a pillar of salt.  To this day, tour guides in Israel point to a certain pillar on “Mount Sodom,” near the Dead Sea, and identify it as Lot’s wife.  The Torah relates that the people of the five cities of the Sodom area were so wicked and depraved, that Hashem decided to wipe them out and turn the beautiful, verdant area into a wasteland.  Avraham’s nephew Lot, his wife and two daughters were to be spared, and two angels came to save them.  The angels told Lot and his family that Hashem was about to destroy the city, but that they would be saved, and that they should quickly escape to the mountains.  There was just one condition: Don’t look back.  Lot’s wife couldn’t resist and she looked back, and turned into a pillar of salt.  Another head-scratcher.  There are many questions on this story, here are three.  Why couldn’t she control herself and not look back, the only condition for her being saved?  What was so terrible that she looked back? Why salt?  There are many wonderful commentaries that discuss these questions and others.  I would like to focus on the lesson to be learned in our daily lives, based on a lecture given by Rabbi Yosef Jacobson (available on theyeshiva.net). 

The written Torah is not a history book, but a guide to life.  Every story that is recounted in the Torah is there because it informs us about our own lives and how to fulfil our mission on earth.  So in addition to the actual story that happened as described, there are mystical meaning that apply directly to each of us.  Each of us has a little Sodom.  A sage known as the Ri of Panu wrote that the custom of dipping our Challah in salt is to remember Lot’s wife and to repair her sin, which means that this is something we need to relate to in all generations and at all times. There are things we do that are improper and inappropriate, negative to Hashem and negative toward others.  The Torah tells us that we have to run away from these destructive behaviors as quickly as we can.  The question is, are we able to truly move away from our indiscretions, or do we get stuck in the past.  Sometimes we run away from Sodom but we remain stuck there.  

Let’s take a look at salt.  Salt on its own is inedible, it tastes bitter and horrible and can’t be eaten.  Add a little salt to your food, and it enhances all the flavors and makes the food much more palatable.  Salt represents guilt and remorse.  We cannot go through life without recognizing our mistakes and trying to fix them.  A little remorse is very important to ensure that we will work to fix our mistakes, to identify what led us down the wrong path and to help us change our ways.  Just as a little salt enhances the flavor of our food, a little remorse helps improve our lives, and therefore we dip our bread in salt at every meal.  But it is important to remember that the salt is not the meal.  The food is the meal, and the salt is there to enhance its taste.  Too much salt will ruin the food.  

Our purpose in life is not to feel guilty.  There are some who associate guilt with religion.  If I feel guilty it shows that I hate my sins.  Well, actually being overwhelmed with guilt shows not that we hate our sins but that we hate ourselves.  If we hate our sins, we will get away from them.  Excessive guilt is really self-centeredness, which can be expressed in a few ways.  There are arrogant people who consider themselves great and wonderful and feel as if the whole world belongs to them.  Then there are those who feel low and guilty, constantly thinking about what they have done wrong and how incompetent they are in life.  That is as much self-centered as arrogance, because it is all about me.  That is looking back, staying in Sodom even while trying to run away from it.  Instead of focusing on our mission, moving out of the negative impulses and bringing light and goodness to ourselves and the world, we turn into a pillar of salt, wallowing in guilt and giving up on ourselves. 

The Torah tells us, don’t look back and become a pillar of salt.  Don’t get stuck in your past.  Yes, at every meal put a little salt on your challah, identify the negatives and move forward, but remember that the food is the bread, not the salt.  At this moment you have a mission to perform, and regardless of your past, you have the power and ability to perform that mission.  Take a few moments at the end of the day and consider what needs to be fixed and how to do it, but don’t ever identify yourself as a sinner or a failure.   

In the current JLI course that we began last night, we discussed that the fuel of life is positive emotions, and that negative emotions hold us back and are the source of most failures in life.  It is not too late to sign up and learn how to avoid getting mired in negativity and avoiding becoming a pillar of salt.  

Lech -Lecha

 Whenever I read the story of our forefather Avraham and our foremother Sarah, I am struck by the power and impact of their lives. A pioneer is someone who breaks out of the mold and starts doing things differently. After a while people take the new method for granted and don’t realize the sacrifices that the pioneer had to make to blaze the new trail. We see this in many areas of life, especially today in technology, where yesterday’s unimaginable becomes tomorrow’s normal.

Let’s imagine the world that Avraham and Sarah lived in. The average person worshipped the dust on their feet as a deity. Monotheism was considered apostasy and treason against the ruler Nimrod who considered himself a god. Abraham and Sarah introduced faith in one G-d. Not only did they themselves believe this, but they taught and spread the belief far and wide. Abraham was thrown into a furnace for this belief, and survived miraculously. They were the ones who introduced the idea of welcoming guests and offering unconditional kindness to strangers. Today we consider this the work of the righteous, and when we hear of someone who exceedingly generous we are greatly impressed, but nevertheless we expect people to do it. In those days there was no such thing. It was a completely new idea. The fact that we do it today is because we emulate them.

Those are just two examples of many, many things that Avraham and Sarah introduced to the world. Our sages taught: “Ma’asse Avot Siman Labanim” - the works of the forefathers and foremothers are a “sign” for their children. This statement has many layers of meaning. On a superficial level it could mean that we should learn from and emulate their actions. On a deeper level it means that what they did set the stage for their children and gave us the strength to accomplish our mission on earth.

This concept also applies to the troubling story of Sarah being abducted by Pharaoh. Avraham asked her to say that she was his sister because he knew that she would be forcibly taken by Pharaoh as a wife, and that Pharaoh would have no qualms about killing her husband in order to make sure she was single. Twisted sick logic, but that was Egypt. Hashem plagued Pharaoh and he was unable to touch Sarah. He sent her away with many gifts adding up to a huge treasure. Following what I mentioned before, that everything that happened to Avraham and Sarah was a “sign” for their children, Chassidus explains that it was this event that set the stage for the subsequent Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. Pharaoh’s inability to take control of Sarah and his being forced to let her go led to the later Pharaoh’s inability to permanently enslave the Jewish people and their ultimate release “with hand held high.”  Pharaoh giving Sarah much treasure led to the Jews leaving with a great treasure from Egypt.

Many thousands of pages have been filled with the lessons there are to learn from the lives of Avraham and Sarah. One striking point is the depth of meaning in the seemingly simple stories of the Torah. As I have written many times, the written Torah cannot be understood without its interpretation in the Oral Torah. There are so many layers of meaning to every verse and every word if we are willing to take a little time and study the rich tradition of our Torah as it has been handed down by our Sages through the ages.  

Noach

 A flood is a terrible thing.  Over the last few years we have seen floods and Tsunamis that caused major devastation, and these events are very troubling.  Now imagine a flood covering the entire world, all living beings wiped out.  I often hear people ask “how could such a good G-d let these things happen?”  What is happening here?  Why would such a devastating event happen and what can we learn from it?

 

Let me give a different perspective, based on Kabbala and Chassidus. (As usual, I am only able to give a short glimpse into the concepts on this forum.) Hashem wanted to create a world with beings that have free choice. Choice to believe in Him or not, to follow His commandments or not, to live our mission or not, to bring light or darkness. The goal of all this is to enjoy light overcoming darkness. In an environment with bright light, another light, no matter how bright, accomplishes nothing. In a dark environment, even a tiny candles transforms the place. Hashem therefore created this physical world with human beings who do good by choice. There are many spiritual worlds above this one, with spiritual beings that we call angels, but they have no choice, and therefore their service to Hashem is not that meaningful. It is only the human being in this world of darkness and selfishness, who chooses to do the right thing despite the environment, who truly fulfills the purpose of creation. 

 

How is it possible that the very source of life of the world is hidden to the extent that it is possible for people, whose very existence moment-to-moment depends on Hashem, can deny their very life-force and go against His will, and still survive and thrive (at least materially)? For that to happen Hashem had to mask His light, to create a space where His light is completely hidden. (Of course it is not light in the physical sense, but we use that metaphor because we can relate to the idea of light being hidden by layers of coverings.) Now here is the problem: Creating a dark environment creates darkness. Absence of light means that you have to search for light. The natural tendency in such an environment is to accept the darkness as natural and to go along with it. Bucking the trend takes sacrifice and hard work. In addition, in order to give us true free choice, we have two tendencies within us, also called two souls, the “Divine soul” and the “natural soul,” and we tend to be drawn toward the desires of the natural soul. So there is a real danger that people will choose to go in the other direction, and in fact this is often the case. Nevertheless, this risk is a necessary evil in order to give us real choice, so that the candle we light with a Mitzvah is really meaningful, lighting up the dark world and our own darkness. 

 

When Hashem first created the world, the intense darkness that was created by the concealment of His light was very difficult to penetrate, and the world descended into a cesspool of evil that could not be overcome. This is also evidenced by the fact that Noach built an ark for 120 years, warning people about the impending flood, and nobody listened. It was necessary to create a more equal balance between light and darkness. To soften the concealment and allow the dark world to let some light in, so to speak, and to create a more level playing field. So Hashem purified the world with the waters of the flood.   Just as a Mikvah purifies the impure, so too the flood purified the world. For a Mikvah to be kosher, it must contain the amount of 40 se’ah (a Talmudic measure). The flood lasted 40 days, corresponding to 40 se’ah. The pure evil was washed away, and what was left was a more refined world, a world where good people have a chance to do good and bring light.

 

That is the explanation of why the rainbow is the symbol of Hashem’s covenant never to bring a flood again to destroy the entire world. A rainbow is caused when the rays of the sun shine through the clouds. The symbolism is that whereas before the flood the darkness was so intense that it could not be penetrated by light, now this had changed and the clouds allow sunshine through them. It now became possible for people to choose to do the right thing no matter how dark the environment around us is.

 

There are several lessons here, and here is one that I think is very powerful. The challenges that we face in our daily lives, the worries about making a living and surviving day-to-day seem like a flood and sometimes overwhelm us. The Torah is teaching us, in its extensive discussion of the flood, that these flood waters are really there to purify us. When a person realizes that his or her work is not always as successful as expected, we begin to realize that we need Hashem’s blessings in order to achieve success. This realization itself brings the blessings that come after the flood, when we are able to infuse our work and daily activities with faith and spiritual purpose. 

 

Our upcoming JLI course will give us real tools to help overcome the “Flood” of worries and negative feelings that we face, and help us lead to a happier, more successful and productive life. I am very excited about it and looking forward to sharing it with you. You can register here. Please note that the first lesson, on Wednesday, November 13k, is free with no obligation to commit to the course. Come and see for yourself, I think you will really enjoy it. 

Sukkot

 The traditional greeting for Chol Hamoed  (the intermediate days of a festival) is "Moadim Lesimcha" in Hebrew or "Gut Moed" in Yiddish.  I guess it is the equivalent of "have a good holiday" in English.  The central Mitzvah of the holiday of Sukkot is, of course, the Sukkah.  During the holiday of Sukkot, we make the Sukkah our home by eating and drinking eat and drink in the Sukkah, studying or even hanging out in the Sukkah. we study and hang out in the Sukkah, and  In general, we try to do whatever we usually do in the house in the Sukkah, unless it is inconvenient, like if it is raining and the food is getting wet from the rain.  Then it is ok to eat in the house. although the Chabad custom is to always eat and drink in the Sukkah, even just to drink water, and even if it is pouring.  Sleeping is also not required if it uncomfortable. (The Chabad custom is not to sleep in the Sukkah in general, based on spiritual discomfort, but that is another discussion perhaps for a different time.  Some consider this a controversial position, but there is solid halachic backing for it, and the explanation has been published in “Likutei Sichot” volume 29.)  Which brings us to a striking question -  since when are we exempt from a Mitzvah because of discomfort?  Imagine saying that it is inconvenient to keep Shabbat so we are exempt.  Or it’s difficult for me to put on Tefillin today so I won’t do it.  We don’t find this idea with any other Mitzvah.  Yet with the Mitzvah of Sukkah, the central Mitzvah of the wonderful, joyous holiday of Sukkot, for which the holiday itself is named, we are exempt if it is uncomfortable.  (Disclaimer: There are halachic parameters for what is considered legitimate discomfort, it is not just an objective, personal decision.)

 

There are several answers given, among them the fact that we treat the Sukkah like our house, and if there was a major leak in the roof over our dining room, we wouldn’t eat there in the rain.  A deeper answer is based on the Rebbe’s teachings about the meaning of the Sukkah.  The Torah says that “all Jewish residents shall sit in Sukkot, in order that your generations shall know that I had the Jewish people dwell in Sukkot when I took them out of Egypt.”  What were these Sukkot?  Our sages taught that these were miraculous clouds that surrounded the Jews as they traveled through the scorching heat of the desert.  The Code of Jewish Law points out that knowing and understanding the intent of the Sukkah is a central part of the Mitzvah, as the Torah expressly says that the Mitzvah is “in order that your generations should know.” 

 

What is it exactly that we are remembering?  The clouds were protective of the Jewish people in many ways. The Talmud says, in addition to providing shade, they killed snakes and scorpions and flattened out mountains and valleys.  Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement, in his Code of Jewish Law, writes that the Sukkah specifically emphasizes the shade aspect of the clouds.  If you think about it, most of our holiday celebrations are in remembrance of a deliverance from slavery, oppression or impending danger.  Think Pesach - the Exodus from Egypt, Chanukah – redemption from Greek oppression, and Purim – salvation from total annihilation at the hands of Haman and Achashverosh.  Contrast this with Sukkot.  The Jews were traveling for 40 years in the desert.  Not only did Hashem protect them against dangers like snakes and scorpions, but also provided shade from the heat and sun.  They could have found a way to shelter themselves, as Bedouins have done for thousands of years.  But Hashem ensured that they should have total comfort and not need to worry about providing shelter from the heat.  This is an expression of Hashem’s love for His people, and this is what Sukkot is all about.  So if the whole point of the Sukkah is to celebrate comfort, it doesn’t make sense to require us to sit there in a state of discomfort. 

 

This is one of the reasons that Sukkot is called “the Time of our Joy.”  After all our work of Teshuvah and coming closer to Hashem during the High Holidays, we now bask in the love and care of Hashem, and what could bring more joy than that?  The culmination of this holiday, the final day, is Simchat Torah, when we express our love for Hashem and His love for us through the Torah.  We dance with the Torah scrolls with great joy, we say L’chaim with a little more abandon than usual, and of course we complete the cycle of Torah reading and start again from the beginning.


There is no place for a great Simchat Torah celebration like Chabad! Chabad Palo Alto is having a "Simchat Torah Live" Celebration that you can check out here. Be sure to contact your local Chabad to see different Simchat Torah Celebrations near you!

Pre-Sukkot

The four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot are considered a minor holiday.  In fact, the daily prayers during this time are holiday style.  There is a part of the daily prayer – viduy and tachnun (confession and supplication) that we don’t say on festive days, and we skip it during this period.  We all know about the upcoming Sukkot holiday, but why call these four days a holiday too? 

 

Let’s talk first about Sukkot.  Sukkot is called “Zman Simchateinu – the Time of our Joy.”  It is a holiday filled with Mitzvot, Sukkah, the Four Species of Etrog, Lulav, Hadassim (myrtle) and Aravot (willow), days of celebration with special prayers of thanks to Hashem, special meals and drinks, and dancing and singing throughout the holiday.  When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, there was a nightly celebration that lasted literally all night every night.  The joy was so great that the Talmud state that whoever did not see that joy has never seen joy in his or her life!  The dancing and singing, accompanied by musical instruments, was enhanced by the greatest sages juggling and leading the festivities.  There were tall posts with torches on top of them that cast so much light that the Talmud says that any person in Jerusalem could check wheat kernels at night by its light!  The celebration was called Simchat Beit Hashoeva – the joy of the water drawing.  Every day in the Temple there were animal and flour offerings.  Along with the daily offerings, there was a ceremony of pouring wine into a funnel on the altar leading to a pipe that went down deep into the ground.  On Sukkot, in addition to the wine, water was poured into a second funnel that was there for this purpose.  The water for this libation was drawn from the Shiloach spring below the Temple Mount (you can visit it now in Jerusalem) and was carried with great joy and celebration up to the Temple.  Chassidus and Kabbalah explain the significance of the pouring of the wine and the water, and why the water pouring created so much incredible joy.  You can read more about it here. 

 

Nowadays, when we don’t have the Holy Temple and the offerings on the altar, we still celebrate the holiday in every other way.  It is customary to gather in the Sukkah every night of the holiday to say L’chaim and celebrate.  In Crown Heights in Brooklyn the main street – Kingston Avenue – is closed and there is live music and dancing all night every night.  (On the first two nights and Shabbat there is no music played, of course.)

 

Now back to the four days before Sukkot. We have completed the service of the Ten Days of Teshuva and successfully completed the Yom Kippur atonement, and now we move into the spirit of the upcoming holiday, when we are celebrating the new Divine light and blessings that we have received during the Days of Awe.  Everyone is now busy preparing for all the observances and special Mitzvot of the holiday, building Sukkot, choosing a nice etrog and lulav set, preparing food for the holiday and studying the las and customs relating to it.  The mood is festive and the anticipation of the holiday lifts us up to a higher plane.  We begin to feel the energy of the holiday. 

 

Here at Chabad it is an especially busy time, one of my favorite times of the year.  Approximately 150 people will come to my office to choose their lulav and etrog, along with the freshest hadassim and aravot anywhere.  Here it is a personal experience, where everyone gets to personally choose a lulav and etrog that “speaks to them.”  We always order many more than have been reserved, so if you have not yet ordered one, you can still do so at www.chabadgsb.com/etrog.

 

I wish you a joyous holiday.  If you need any more information, please do not hesitate to contact me by replying to this email or at 650-424-9800.  May we merit the coming of Moshiach in the next day or two, and then we will be able to once again the enjoy the full joy of Simchat Beit Hashoeva in the third Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  

Rosh Hashana & Nitzavim

 

How are we to approach Hashem on Rosh Hashana? Rosh Hashana is a time when most Jews go to Shul.
Something drives us at this time to connect to our heritage and to be part of the annual event known as the High Holidays. What is this drive and why is it so important? The truth is that how meaningful Rosh Hashana is to us really depends on the meaning we bring to it. For some it is a social event that brings everyone together once a year. For others it is a time to remember our past and recharge our Judaism.


For some it is a time to pray and ask Hashem for blessings for the New Year on this “Day of Judgment.” Ido believe that underlying all of the explanations we may give for why we show up is the essential soul in each of us that never gives up and is always, no matter how we live our lives, bound up with it’s
Divine source. On the day of Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the creation of humanity, Hashem renews His creation of the universe, as we say in the liturgy “this day is the beginning of Your work,” and there is a special holiness permeating the atmosphere. Even if we don’t feel it in our minds or heart, our
soul feels it, drives us to do something about it and schlepps us to show up.

 

Once in Shul, or for that matter for someone who can’t make it to Shul but wants to observe this great day, how do we connect? I think that most people feel that they are less knowledgeable than others and less worthy to truly approach Hashem. We look at the book and read the prayers, but do we feel that we really understand the meaning behind them? There are great scholars who know what the prayers really mean, what the mystical meaning is behind the words, but me? What do I understand? Without any real knowledge, it’s just rote, so I might as well just give up on any real connection with
Hashem and just go through the motions.

 

I have two answers to this problem. First, while the prayers are really very important and do, indeed, carry many mystical meaning to help us bring blessings on ourselves, our families and the world, the most important Mitzvah of the day is to hear the Shofar blasts. So if you focus on that part, you are getting the most out of the day. What exactly is the meaning of the Shofar and why is it so important? You can find some answers here. But the bottom line is that hearing the Shofar is key.

 

How about if you don’t get the meaning of any of this and feel somehow left out of the mystical experiences? Here is a story from the book Sipurei Chassidim that I think addresses this point well. The blowing of the Shofar has many deep mystical explanations, and is central to the entire Rosh Hashana
service, so the person who blows the Shofar for the whole community should really try to brush up on his knowledge to deeply understand the significance of what he is doing. In the synagogues of great mystics, the person chosen to blow the Shofar would be one of the greatest among them. In Chabad,
the Rebbes themselves would blow the Shofar. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, who can best be described as one of the greatest giants of all time in Torah, holiness and humanity, approached one of his greatest Chassidim (close followers) by the name of Reb Zev Kitzes
some time before Rosh Hashana and appointed him to blow the Shofar. The Baal Shem Tov told him to study the Kabbalistic meanings of the Shofar blowing, and we can only imagine the spiritual fervor with which Reb Zev approached this holy task. He spent many days learning the deep secrets of this Mitzvah,
and took notes on the main points, for him to refer to while he was blowing. He put these notes in his pocket in the morning of Rosh Hashana in order to have them with him at the right time. When the 
 time came to blow the Shofar, Reb Zev realized that the paper was missing. He was crushed. The holy Rebbe had entrusted him with such a great responsibility and now he would let him down. He tried to think of the mystical teachings that he had learned, but he was so distraught that he couldn’t think of anything and instead just focused on following the Halacha (Jewish law) and getting the sounds out in
the proper form. He was devastated and spent the rest of the service sobbing with his tallit over his head. At the conclusion of the services, the Baal Shen Tov approached him and said: “Gut Yom Tov (happy holiday), Reb Zev! That was a most extraordinary shofar-blowing we heard today!”

 

Reb Zev didn’t understand. The Baal Shem Tov explained (from Chabad.org): “In the king’s palace there are many gates and doors, leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. But there is one key that fits all the locks, a
master key that opens all the doors. The kavanot (mystical meditations) are keys, each unlocking another door in our souls, each accessing another chamber in the supernal worlds. But there is one keythat unlocks all doors, that opens up for us the innermost chambers of the divine palace. That master key
is a broken heart.”

 

On Rosh Hashana we say: Avinu Malkeinu,” our father our king. Hashem is foremost our loving father. Each of us can approach Hashem on this awesome and auspicious day, with or without knowledge, with or without deep meditations. Hashem is available to us with deep and abiding love, and is waiting to
shower us with blessings for the New Year. May it be a sweet and successful one for all of us.

Ki Tavo

 

There is a Mitzvah called “Vidui Maaser” – the confession of the tithes.  What does that mean?  There are several tithe requirements for any farmer in the Land of Israel.  Nowadays that we don’t not have the Holy Temple, the requirements are somewhat different than what I will describe). When the produce was harvested, it was allocated three different ways:

2% for Kohanim called Terumah

10% for the Levites called Maaser

10% was allocated separately

 

This last tithe was not handled the same way every year.  There was a seven-year cycle.  On the first and second years, the second tenth was called Maaser Sheni, and taken to Jerusalem and eaten there by the owner and anyone else he chose to share it with.  The third year this tithe was distributed to the poor.  This three-year cycle was repeated in years four to six.  In year seven there were no tithes, since that is the Sabbatical year and all produce in Israel was considered community property.

 

The Torah tells us in this week’s Parsha that by Pesach of the fourth and seventh years, all tithes had to be distributed and removed from the house.  (I guess procrastination is an ancient human trait.)  Then each farmer would come to the Temple and make his “Confession,” the words of which are written explicitly in the Torah.  Let’s take a look at what this confession was (Devarim 26) .

 

“12. When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give [them] to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities.  13. Then you shall say before the Lord, your God, "I have removed the holy [portion] from the house, and I have also given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, according to all Your commandment that You commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments, nor have I forgotten [them].  14. I did not eat any of it [second tithe] while in my mourning, nor did I consume any of it while unclean; neither did I use any of it for the dead. I obeyed the Lord, my God; I did according to all that You commanded me.  15. Look down from Your holy dwelling, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground which You have given to us, as You swore to our forefathers a land flowing with milk and honey.”

 

This is a confession?  Imagine if a man turns to his wife on their 40th anniversary and tells her he has a confession to make.  She listens with trepidation, what is the terrible thing she knew nothing about?  He then tells her:  I have been a faithful husband and father.  I have always fulfilled all my promises to you.  I have never strayed from my love for you and have led an exemplary life.  How would she respond?  That is wonderful, but how is that a confession?

 

The following answer is based on a beautiful talk by Rabbi Yosef Jacobson.  In order to truly confess, a person has to know that they are intrinsically good and recognize their strengths.  Someone who identifies as a bad person cannot confess.  Imagine if you are wearing a suit covered in stains, would you care if you get another stain?  If, on the other hand, your suit is clean, you will take care not to get any stains on it and immediately remove any that do come.  If a person considers themselves basically no good, they will give up on trying to do what is right and not be concerned about another sin or another negative act.  In addition, a person who feels negative about themselves cannot admit to doing wrong, and will often find excuses for their wrongdoing.  Another problem is that they feel that they have no control over themselves, so they cannot resolve to change, a critical component of confession. 

 

The Torah is telling us that a true confession can only come from someone who recognizes their qualities that they are essentially a good person with the ability to stand up and proclaim the good they have done. That person will then be able to positively and purposefully fix the problems, freely confess their sins and work to repair the damage and erase the stains.  That’s why this statement of compliance with Torah and giving all the tithes to the poor is called a confession.  Three times in seven years, every landowner had to be able to stand up and say, “I am someone who wants to follow the Torah and fulfil my mission on earth, and if I don’t, it doesn’t mean I am a bad person, it just means I need to face my faults and repair them.”

 

 This is not just hyperbole.  This is the path to teshuva that is effective and true.  Don’t think of yourself as not good enough or not righteous enough to be able to rise to great spiritual heights.  Your soul yearns for it, and your true self really wants it.  It is only our negative self-definition that holds us back.

 

May you be inscribed and sealed for a sweet New Year, you deserve it.

Ki Teitzei

 

There is a Talmudic statement by Rabbi Yaakov (Kiddushin 39b) that there is no reward for Mitzvot in this world. This is a problematic statement in light of the many rewards promised in the Torah for Mitzvot, including rain, health, peace and many others. A classic example of a Mitzvah with a reward is in this week’s Parsha (Devarim 22:6-7) “If you happen upon a bird’s nest on the way… do not take the mother with the offspring. Send away the mother and [then] take the offspring, in order that it will be good for you and you will have long days.” Sounds like a clear reward in this world. Another Mitzvah that promises long life and goodness is the Mitzvah of honoring our parents. So how does that match with Rabbi Yaakov’s teaching? The Talmud clarifies that the reward for long life and goodness is actually a reward in the world to come, the world of goodness and the world of eternity. 

 

Rabbi Yaakov’s grandfather was a great Torah scholar and later became an apostate (denier of G-d). He is known in the Talmud as “Acher” or the “other one”, so as not to mention his name. One day, he witnessed a father telling his son to climb up a tree where there was a bird’s nest, chase away the mother bird and take the chicks (or eggs). The son did so and fell off the tree and died. Acher was shocked. This young man observed the two Mitzvot for which the Torah promises long life as their reward, and he died while observing them. With that, he threw away all Torah observance and faith in Hashem. The Talmud says: “If only Acher knew the interpretation that his grandson gave to this passage, he would not have become an apostate.” Here we have another example of how reading the written Torah without the Oral Torah’s explanation simply does not give us an accurate interpretation. 

 

Nevertheless, this question is still uncomfortable. The Torah seems to clearly state, in several places, that there are physical rewards for the Mitzvot, so why should we not interpret it simply as physical reward? And if in fact some of those rewards are to be taken literally, why did it not work in the bird’s nest case? The answer can be found based on the Rambam’s response to the seeming contradiction about physical reward. He says that the true reward for our Mitzvot is in the world to come. All the promises that the Torah gives of physical blessings in this world are not really reward, but facilitation to do the Mitzvot. It is necessary to have good health and income in order to be able to live a meaningful life and observe the Mitzvot properly. There is a saying that it is expensive to be observant. Think about the higher price of kosher food, the purchase of Tefillin, Mezuzot, holy books, Tzitzit, Etrog (you can order yours here), tuition in a Jewish school, at least ten percent of our income to Tzedakah, inviting guests to our table, taking time off work for prayers and Torah study and to visit the sick and comfort the bereaved, not working on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and so much more. How are we going to manage all that? This is what the Torah tells us -  Hashem will give if we choose a path of Torah observance. If we dedicate ourselves to following the Torah, we will be rewarded with all we need to fulfill our commitment. But none of that detracts from the true reward that we get in the World to Come.

 

I must note that the Torah teaches us to observe the Mitzvot not for the reward, even the reward in the World to Come. We should observe the Torah because that is our mission in this world, and the ultimate connection with Hashem comes from the observance of practical Mitzvot. Nevertheless we can be assured of the reward to come for our soul in the spiritual world after our lifetime on earth.

 

With this in mind, we can now understand why the death of the young man while fulfilling the Mitzvot of honoring his father and sending away the mother bird is not a contradiction to the reward promised in the Torah. Hashem determines the length of each person’s life, based on the mission each of us has. We are all given just as much time as we need to fulfill our unique mission. This man’s time had come to die, for reasons known only to his Creator. His last act was in observance of two great Mitzvot. The idea of reward in this world, the purpose of which is to facilitate our observance of Torah while we are alive, was not relevant in that case.

 

As we approach the New Year, may we all be blessed with life and health and abundance, and may we all commit to use these blessings to further our mission and make the world a better place – a home for Hashem. 

Shoftim

 

“Oh, that’s just a Rabbinic law!”  I hear that often.  There are those who do not choose to follow the Torah laws in their day to day life.  That is a choice that each person has to make, and the Torah exhorts us to “choose life.”  If someone does choose to follow the Torah, there is a lot of learning that is required to understand how to observe the Mitzvot that permeate every aspect of our lives.  Of course if a person chooses to begin observing Mitzvot that he or she has not been doing in the past, you can’t suddenly jump on a bandwagon and do it all.  There is a process of gradually increasing our observance, recognizing that all the Mitzvot are equally important while at the same time growing in our observance in a sustainable manner, adding one Mitzvah, then another, etc.  This is all good and worthy.  There is, however, another approach that it prevalent, that the Biblical Mitzvot are important, and the Rabbinic Mitzvot, or the Rabbinic interpretations, are not that important or don’t necessarily apply.  (How much more so the customs that many may think of as optional.)  This is not the case, as I will discuss.  They are all equally important.

 

One of the reasons that people consider the Rabbinic laws as less important is based on the fact that when there is a doubt in an obligation, halacha says that if it is a Biblical requirement we are strict, but we are lenient if it is a rabbinic requirement.  Why is this so, if they are both equally important, why the difference if there is a doubt?

 

There are a few problems with the approach that Rabbinic laws are less important.  First of all, how are we able to properly understand a Biblical Mitzvah?  Reading the written Torah, many of the verses are obscure and very hard to understand, intentionally so because it is all written in code.  Leaving the interpretation to each person’s own ideas would result in so many different interpretations that you wouldn’t recognize them as being one Torah, and that is in fact what has happened over the generations.  The Torah is a “user’s manual” that Hashem gave us for the world, a way of life for the people, and it seems strange that He would set it up so that there are hundreds of ways to interpret it.  How can you have a homogeneous society that way?  Without the explanations of the Oral Torah, we simply do not know what the laws and instructions are.  An example of that is the prohibition of cooking (or eating) meat with a substance that is written with three Hebrew letters – chet, lamed and beit.  What is that substance?  Everyone knows it is milk, but that is only because the Oral Torah tells us that the vowels are kamatz and kamatz, therefore spelling the word “chalav” which means milk.  However, without the vowels, which are not written in the Torah scroll, that word can be reads “chelev” – fat.  So the prohibition that we all know as not mixing meat and milk, without the oral tradition, could very well be read as a prohibition against mixing meat and fat.  There goes barbecue, burgers, cholent, brisket and just about any other meat dish.  This is only one example of thousands where we clearly need the Oral Torah to tell us the basic meaning of the Biblical words.

 

In addition to the interpretation of the Biblical laws and instructions, there is another area of Oral Torah known as Rabbinic law. These are laws and instructions that were created by the sages through the ages in order to protect the Biblical law. These are also called fences around the Torah. An example
would be the prohibition of eating meat and milk when they are not cooked together, or eating chicken with milk, both of which are not included in the Biblical prohibition of cooking meat from a milk producing animal with milk, or eating meat and milk that were cooked together. One might think that
these laws carry less weight than Biblical laws, especially in light of the above-mentioned difference in the way we handle a doubt in each of these cases. However, that is not the case. The Torah says in this week’s Parsha (Devarim 17:19-20): You shall do according to the word they (the Sanhedrin – Supreme
Court) tell you, from the place the Lord will choose (the Temple in Jerusalem), and you shall observe to 
 do according to all they instruct you. According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or
left. So there are actually two Biblical commandments, one positive (You shall do according to the word they tell you) and one negative (you shall not divert from the word they tell you), that require us Biblically to follow Rabbinic law. In that case, following rabbinic law is a Biblical requirement and carries
the full power of Biblical law.

 

There is, however, a potential problem.  Another Biblical law states that we may neither add nor subtract from the laws.  So how can we add Rabbinic laws?  Rambam explains this as follows:  We can never say that there is another Biblical law in addition to the 613 that Moshe taught us.  So if someone said that there is a 614th Mitzvah not to eat chicken with milk, that would be a violation of the prohibition to add to the Torah.  However, it is perfectly acceptable, and in fact necessary, for the Sages to add fences and protections to the Biblical law by enacting legislation and adding prohibitions.  And the observance of these laws is required, as above-mentioned, by the written Torah.  This must be presented, though, as Rabbinic protective law and not as an additional biblical law.  This is one of the reasons that we are more lenient with Rabbinic law than we are with Biblical law when there is a doubt.  Not because it is less important, but in order to show a differentiation between the two, so that we should not mistake rabbinic law for Biblical law. 

Re'eh, Elul

 

Elul!  The final month of the Jewish year begins this Sunday.  That word, Elul, carries a wide array of meanings.  For many rabbis it means it’s time to start polishing their sermons, for presidents of typical congregations it is a time to prepare their appeals, cantors practice their music and synagogue staff typically (not including almost all Chabad Centers) are selling tickets for High Holiday services.  Guest lists and menus are being planned for the holidays, and, of course, rabbis and teachers try to discuss and explain the deeper meaning of the Holidays. 

 

Traditionally, and most important, Elul has meant that we need to start taking seriously the fact that the year is drawing to a close, and it is time to make the annual “accounting” of where we are and how we are doing on fulfilling our mission in life.  Just as every business person must from time to time asses how the business is doing, what’s working and what is not, etc., so too we need to stop and take stock of our activities once a year. Another area of spiritual work in Elul is to prepare for Rosh Hashanah itself which is one of the reasons we blow the Shofar every day during Elul, in preparation of the main Mitzvah of Rosh Hashana – blowing the Shofar.  I know they sound like the same thing, but as you will soon see there are actually two distinct aspects of the work of Elul.

 

One of the fascinating aspects of Elul is the word itself.  There is no other month in which the name is so descriptive of the meaning of the month.  The four Hebrew letters of the word are acronyms for several phrases, each related to another aspect of the spiritual work that is characteristic of this month.  The most famous is Ani Ledodi Vedodii Li – I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me, referring to the Teshuva – return – to Hashem that we do, and the response in blessings and Divine light from Hashem.  You can find a wealth of information on Elul here

 

I want to talk about an acronym of Elul that is much less known and requires some discussion of Kabbalah and Chassidus to understand.  How do you spell the Hebrew word “lo?”  It has only two letters, but there are two ways to spell it, depending on what it means.  The lamed is the same on both, but lo with an alef as the second letter means “no,” and with a vav it means “to him.”  If you put these two words together, lamed alef and lamed vav, you get the letters of Elul.  What does “no” and “to him” have to do with Elul?  Earlier I alluded to the two parts of the spiritual service of Elul.  The “accounting” of where we stand in the observance of our life’s mission, and the preparation for Rosh Hashana.  Each of these is reflected in one of the words, lo (not) or lo to Him. 

 

Living a spiritually meaningful life, connected to Hashem and fulfilling the purpose for which He created us, involves the observance of many commandments, some things we must do and others we may not.  As we review our actions of the past year, we may realize that there are some areas where we need improvement – that our living “for Him” may have occasionally fallen by the wayside as we pursue our own needs, feeding our egos and following desires that weaken our connection to Hashem.  In Elul, we work to strengthen our observances and to remind ourselves of how great it is to live a life being conscious that we are here to better the world and to reveal the spiritual light of Hashem.  We work on living more “for Him” in our daily activities.

 

Then there is a much deeper aspect of our connection to Hashem in which we focus not so much on particular observances, but on our essential bond with Hashem.  This bond is referred to in Zohar as “lo” with a alef – “no.”  Chassidus explains that relationship and revelation of Divine light can only be on a conscious level.  There is a level of Divine essence that can never be revealed, that is beyond the grasp of even the holiest and most refined.  In fact, if we go deeper for a moment, the essential existence of Hashem is beyond any kind of revelation or relationship, even in the highest spiritual realms, because all “realms,” even the most spiritual, are still creations.  When we refer to Hashem’s essence, there is no creation and no existence other than Hashem’s pure existence.  So on that level, there is nothing other than Hashem’s essence and no connection with anything.  That is what we are referring to with the mystical “lo” – no. 

 

Chassidus teaches that the essence of our soul is sourced at the essence of Hashem.  This is not something we can comprehend logically, because it is beyond any logic or experience, it is the very essence of our souls that is above any kind of expression.  Yet on Rosh Hashanah we connect to this level.  We blow the Shofar, representing the cry from within the depths of our soul that has no expression of words or form of music.  We won’t, on Rosh Hashanah, enumerate our sins or shortcomings.  It is all about “accepting the sovereignty” of Hashem and recommitting to being His people, on a deep, essential level.  That is the other part of Elul, when we blow the Shofar daily and remember our inner core, a part of Hashem.  That, as the Zohar explains, is the “lo” in our relationship with Hashem, the relationship that cannot be logically explained nor felt intellectually or in our revealed emotions.  So the name Elul expresses the two areas of preparation for the New Year – our practice and feelings that connect us on a daily basis to Hashem, and the reminder of who we are essentially, a part of Hashem that can never be separated. 

 

I wish you a successful Elul in both areas, and may you and all your loved ones be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet New Year. 

Re'eh, Elul

 

Elul!  The final month of the Jewish year begins this Sunday.  That word, Elul, carries a wide array of meanings.  For many rabbis it means it’s time to start polishing their sermons, for presidents of typical congregations it is a time to prepare their appeals, cantors practice their music and synagogue staff typically (not including almost all Chabad Centers) are selling tickets for High Holiday services.  Guest lists and menus are being planned for the holidays, and, of course, rabbis and teachers try to discuss and explain the deeper meaning of the Holidays. 

 

Traditionally, and most important, Elul has meant that we need to start taking seriously the fact that the year is drawing to a close, and it is time to make the annual “accounting” of where we are and how we are doing on fulfilling our mission in life.  Just as every business person must from time to time asses how the business is doing, what’s working and what is not, etc., so too we need to stop and take stock of our activities once a year. Another area of spiritual work in Elul is to prepare for Rosh Hashanah itself which is one of the reasons we blow the Shofar every day during Elul, in preparation of the main Mitzvah of Rosh Hashana – blowing the Shofar.  I know they sound like the same thing, but as you will soon see there are actually two distinct aspects of the work of Elul.

 

One of the fascinating aspects of Elul is the word itself.  There is no other month in which the name is so descriptive of the meaning of the month.  The four Hebrew letters of the word are acronyms for several phrases, each related to another aspect of the spiritual work that is characteristic of this month.  The most famous is Ani Ledodi Vedodii Li – I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me, referring to the Teshuva – return – to Hashem that we do, and the response in blessings and Divine light from Hashem.  You can find a wealth of information on Elul here

 

I want to talk about an acronym of Elul that is much less known and requires some discussion of Kabbalah and Chassidus to understand.  How do you spell the Hebrew word “lo?”  It has only two letters, but there are two ways to spell it, depending on what it means.  The lamed is the same on both, but lo with an alef as the second letter means “no,” and with a vav it means “to him.”  If you put these two words together, lamed alef and lamed vav, you get the letters of Elul.  What does “no” and “to him” have to do with Elul?  Earlier I alluded to the two parts of the spiritual service of Elul.  The “accounting” of where we stand in the observance of our life’s mission, and the preparation for Rosh Hashana.  Each of these is reflected in one of the words, lo (not) or lo to Him. 

 

Living a spiritually meaningful life, connected to Hashem and fulfilling the purpose for which He created us, involves the observance of many commandments, some things we must do and others we may not.  As we review our actions of the past year, we may realize that there are some areas where we need improvement – that our living “for Him” may have occasionally fallen by the wayside as we pursue our own needs, feeding our egos and following desires that weaken our connection to Hashem.  In Elul, we work to strengthen our observances and to remind ourselves of how great it is to live a life being conscious that we are here to better the world and to reveal the spiritual light of Hashem.  We work on living more “for Him” in our daily activities.

 

Then there is a much deeper aspect of our connection to Hashem in which we focus not so much on particular observances, but on our essential bond with Hashem.  This bond is referred to in Zohar as “lo” with a alef – “no.”  Chassidus explains that relationship and revelation of Divine light can only be on a conscious level.  There is a level of Divine essence that can never be revealed, that is beyond the grasp of even the holiest and most refined.  In fact, if we go deeper for a moment, the essential existence of Hashem is beyond any kind of revelation or relationship, even in the highest spiritual realms, because all “realms,” even the most spiritual, are still creations.  When we refer to Hashem’s essence, there is no creation and no existence other than Hashem’s pure existence.  So on that level, there is nothing other than Hashem’s essence and no connection with anything.  That is what we are referring to with the mystical “lo” – no. 

 

Chassidus teaches that the essence of our soul is sourced at the essence of Hashem.  This is not something we can comprehend logically, because it is beyond any logic or experience, it is the very essence of our souls that is above any kind of expression.  Yet on Rosh Hashanah we connect to this level.  We blow the Shofar, representing the cry from within the depths of our soul that has no expression of words or form of music.  We won’t, on Rosh Hashanah, enumerate our sins or shortcomings.  It is all about “accepting the sovereignty” of Hashem and recommitting to being His people, on a deep, essential level.  That is the other part of Elul, when we blow the Shofar daily and remember our inner core, a part of Hashem.  That, as the Zohar explains, is the “lo” in our relationship with Hashem, the relationship that cannot be logically explained nor felt intellectually or in our revealed emotions.  So the name Elul expresses the two areas of preparation for the New Year – our practice and feelings that connect us on a daily basis to Hashem, and the reminder of who we are essentially, a part of Hashem that can never be separated. 

 

I wish you a successful Elul in both areas, and may you and all your loved ones be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet New Year. 

Eikev

 Sometimes we read a passage in the Torah at face value and we get a skewed view of what really happened.  One example is the story of the breaking of the Tablets, which is part of Moshe’s narrative in this weeks’ Parsha, Eikev, as he is repeating the Torah to the people before his death.  When I first learned this story as a young kid, I had this image of the great Moshe, coming down from the mountain all excited to bring the miraculous Tablets, made by Hashem and inscribed with the Ten Commandments, to the people.  He had been looking forward to this moment for 40 days, not eating or drinking, being completely absorbed in spirituality, learning Torah from Hashem and preparing to transmit it to the people. He walks down the mountain and is shocked to see the people dancing around a golden calf, and in an understandable fit of anger he smashes the Tablets!  As I got older and started understanding a little more about Moshe, the whole thing didn’t make sense. Anger is associated with arrogance. Moshe was the humblest person who ever lived. Perhaps shock and disappointment? But Hashem had already told Moshe before he descended from the mountain that the people had made golden calf. Was it A fit of rage?  “I’ll teach you a lesson?” That is something that the mind of a kid might relate to, but let’s stop for a moment and examine who Moshe was. Moshe was the most refined human being ever, described by the Torah as one to whom Hashem spoke “mouth to mouth.” When he was a young man, he had killed a murderous Egyptian taskmaster, and miraculously escaped Pharaoh’s attempt to execute him.  Later, he faced Pharaoh fearlessly when he returned as the redeemer, performing great miracles and destroying the entire Egyptian infrastructure. He then not only fought against great enemies including Amalek, Midyan, the mighty kings Sichon and Og, but had to deal with several rebellions among his own people. This is all in addition to bringing down the Torah from heaven and teaching it to the people, miraculously providing food and water for 40 years for all the people in the desert, and all the many other things that he did that defy human imagination.  And now just coming from the intense Divine revelation for 40 days on Mount Sinai, somehow for him to smash this great gift from Hashem in a fit of anger just doesn’t work. So we have two choices: Either stick to our narrative and think that Moshe was not as perfect as the Torah describes, or take a more humble approach and realize that there is more to this story than we first understood. In fact, as always, if we look at the Oral Torah and its interpretation, handed down through all the generations, we realize that the story is really very different.  

This is based on Midrash, Talmud, Halacha, Kabbalah and Chassidus, as well as on the Biblical verses themselves.  The Torah tells us that Hashem told Moshe to hew two tablets to replace the ones “that you broke.” The Hebrew word for “that you broke” is “sheshibarta,” but the Torah uses two words: “asher shibarta.”  While that is still correct, the Torah does not use a single letter superfluously. What is the lesson of the extra word “asher?” The final Rashi in the Torah teaches that “asher”, meaning “happy” or “fortunate,” teaches us that Hashem thanked Moshe for breaking the Tablet, agreeing that is was the right thing to do.  What does this mean? 

Moshe was the greatest leader we have ever had.  He is known as the “shepherd of Israel.” Moshe was holy from birth.  The Torah tells us that when he was born the room was filled with light.  He had many great qualities, including leadership qualities. But what clinched his choice as the leader to redeem the Jews and to start us off as a nation was the story where a sheep ran away from his flock, and he found it at a water hole. Instead of getting angry, he said that had he known the sheep was so thirsty, he would have carried it therewith his own hands.  Moshe cared more for his people than himself, to the extent that he was willing to sacrifice anything for them, including his place in the Torah and our history. Even for those who had strayed so far as to worship an idol 40 days after they had heard directly from Hashem not to have any other gods. Moshe cared deeply for every single one of his people, and wanted to bring them to Teshuva and forgiveness.


The day the Torah was given to us is compared to a wedding, the metaphorical marriage of Hashem and the Jewish people.  There are many ways in which this metaphor is expressed. A marriage is not complete until the marriage contract is delivered, and the Tablet were the “marriage contract.”  When Moshe saw that the Jews had been “unfaithful” to their “husband,” he was afraid that they would be completely rejected and “divorced” by Hashem. He therefore broke the Tablets, so that the marriage would not be complete, giving people the time to show that they were really essentially faithful to Hashem, and it was, as the Torah says the “mixed multitude” of Egyptians who were the ones who had turned the calf into a deity.  Hashem forgave the people, and the Tablets were rewritten and delivered to the Jewish people on Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. As always, this is just a tiny taste of all the commentary and discussion that has been written on this subject.


Here we see the greatness of Moshe’s leadership.  In defense of his people, he broke the most precious thing in the world, Tablets made by G-d Himself and inscribed with words that held onto the Tablets miraculously, as the Talmud describes, in order to protect those who had gone against everything that he had taught them.  And here is another example of how shallow the reading of the written Torah is without the Oral Tradition.


The Talmud says that as the nights begin to get longer toward the end of summer, it is especially important to increase our Torah learning, since the optimum time to study Torah is at night.  This exhortation comes with a blessing – one who increases Torah learning at this time adds days to his life. May I suggest that you take some time every evening studying the Parsha with Rashi, thereby getting a much richer understanding of, and appreciation for, what the Torah teaches.  And, perhaps, join my Thursday night class where we discuss the Torah in this way.


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.

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