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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat -Vayigash/Hei Tevet

Can a heel listen?

Can a heel listen?  We know that there are times when our ears don’t listen, but at least sometimes they do.   They are, after all, designed for that.  But a heel listening?  The Parsha this week opens with the words:  “Vehaya eikev tishme’un” (hence the name of the Parsha Eikev) – “It will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep and perform them, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.”  There is a lot to discuss regarding this verse, but as usual I want to focus on one point, and that is the word used for “because” at the beginning of the verse - eikev. While eikev can be translated as “because,” and that is how we read it in this context, the basic translation of the word Eikev itself is “heel.”  So we could read the verse as “It will be that your heel will heed these ordinances…”  The Torah could have used more common words for “because,” like “ki” or “mipnei.”  The unusual choice of “eikev” obviously carries a lesson.  Rashi comments on this question.  His answer is that the blessings promised in this verse come as a reward of keeping those Mitzvot that people generally trample under the heel, meaning those Mitzvot that people consider unimportant, and are often neglected.  There is a special reward when we observe even those Mitzvot.

 

There is a deeper interpretation in Chassidus, that correlates with Rashi’s interpretation.  Vehaya eikev tishme’un – it will be when your heel hears.  These special blessings are given to us when our heel heeds the Torah.  What does that mean?  The heel is the lowest part of the body, with the least feeling.  When we want to test the heat of a pool, we put our heel in, because it has very little feeling.  In the body we have our head, the set of our brain and higher faculties like sight, hearing etc., then the trunk, the seat of our heart and vital internal organs and our emotions, and then come the legs and feet, culminating with the heel, with the least amount of feeling.  The foot reacts to the instructions from the brain without any intellect or emotion.  It is purely practical, doing without understanding.  So how can the heel listen?

 

Chassidus teaches that it is possible for a person to reach a level of connection to Hashem that his or her entire body becomes completely merged with the soul.  When a person reaches that level, observance of Torah is not something that needs to be forced, but something that comes naturally.  Now this is a very lofty level, and what does it have to do with us?  Well, while it may seem inaccessible, we can strive to at least some level of awareness that will bring us to a deeper connection with Hashem.  The Torah is, after all, given to each and every one of us, so the lesson must apply to me and you as well.  

 

If you think about the degrees of importance of the various parts of the body, it is possible to consider a hierarchy.  The brain is the source of all our thoughts and the nerve center that drives everything we do.  The emotions of the heart drive our feelings and our actions.  The hands are involved in doing all kinds of creative things.  The feet do things that are much less creative and in the scheme of things are less important to our life and vitality than the upper parts of the body.  Nevertheless, can you say that feet are “less alive” than the rest of the body?  When it comes to basic life, the entire body is equally alive.  Chassidus talks about the difference between the “revealed faculties,” the expressions of the soul that drive our thoughts and actions, and the “essence” of the soul -  the life force itself.  The former is expressed differently in each part and organ of the body, with more life felt in the head than the heel.  But the essence of the soul is not subject to division or gradations.  The soul is life, and life is found equally in every part of the body.  

 

So now let’s apply this to our verse.  A person may do the Mitzvot because they make sense, or because they feel right.  The mind and the heart are listening, but the heel has very little to do with it.  This will translate into action.  Those Mitzvot that make sense or bring strong feelings will mean more to us than those that we don’t understand or feel.  However if the connection to Hashem is on a soul level – we recognize that the Torah is Hashem’s will and it is our mission to observe the commandments in order to bring Hashem’s Presence into the world – then it doesn’t matter how well we understand a Mitzvah or how we feel about it.  It is not about our mind or heart, it is about our essential soul connection to Hashem.  In that case, even in the “heel,” even when we have no feeling or understanding, we will connect to Hashem and the Torah.  As Rashi says, we will observe even those Mitzvot that we deem unimportant and trample under our heel.  

 

This is something each of us can connect to, at least from time to time.  If we recognize that what makes Judaism unique is the fact that our tradition is given by Hashem in the Torah, whenever we see an opportunity to do a Mitzvah and connect to Hashem, we will go for it.  Regardless of what we have done or not done in the past, regardless of how knowledgeable or how deep our religious feelings  are, we can seize the moment and do even a small Mitzvah, and that itself brings abundant blessings.  

 

Cognitive Dissonance on Tisha B'Av

 Cognitive dissonance. It can be defined as acting one way while believing the opposite, which causes us to experience stress. Sometimes I wonder about this when I am sitting on a low stool on Tisha B’Av (the day we mourn destruction of the two Holy Temples and the exile of the Jewish people from our land), reading lamentations, fasting and wearing non-leather shoes. At the same time I read that this day will, in the future, be the most joyous day on the Jewish calendar. This future joy spills over to our time. There are certain prayers - called tachnun - that we do not say on holidays, and we don’t say them on Tisha B’Av, because in the book of Lamentations this day is called “Moed,” meaning holiday. How can one reconcile these two opposite ideas?

In a nutshell, the answer related to what I wrote about last week - attitude.  How an event occurs to us depends on our attitude and interpretation. A house burns down. That is an event. Is it good or bad?  If the owner was intending to live there for many years, it is a bad thing. However If the owner wanted to tear it down to build a new one, the fire paved the way for the new construction. Meanwhile , the person is misplaced from the home, needs to find a place to live and replace the items that were destroyed This is difficult and challenging. But the actual event of the house burning is in fact leading to a positive outcome. Perhaps the owner was procrastinating and not wanting to go to the trouble of moving etc., and the house would have started falling apart. The fire has led to a new, positive future.


A parent holds a child down while the doctor sticks a big needle in his or her arm. The child feels pain and cannot believe the parent would allow this to happen. The parent is motivated only by love of the child and concern for his or her health. In fact this love expresses a deeper love than when the parent is giving the child what he wants. By nature, a parent suffers when a child is in pain. Yet the parent digs deep into his or her well of love and overcomes that’s nature to cause pain to the child, pain that is necessary for her welfare.


Yes, we are in pain. We fast and lament, we sit on low chairs and cry for the pain of the exile and the loss of the Temple. It is painful and tragic. But it happened to us because of Hashem’s love for us. The destruction of the Temple was to make way for the third, eternal Temple. Our dispersion around the world is to elevate the world and make its entirety a home for Hashem.  There is no dissonance. There is pain and faith. Pain for the past and present, and faith for the greater future. And the understanding that every bit of pain and every moment that we overcome it and act according to Hashem’s will, Is creating that future and bringing it closer. Tisha B’Av will be the greatest holiday because the destruction that happened on that day will lead to the glorious future.


Enough pain. Time for the great future. Hope and faith are wonderful and important, but it’s time for us to see and experience the glory and the joy in reality. May it be soon.


The power of attitude

Attitude:  A word with many meanings.  When we say that a kid has "attitude," we usually mean "troublemaker."  "You have a great attitude" is a compliment, as opposed to "you need to work on your attitude."  I suggest that attitude is one of the most important areas of life.  Our attitude sets the tone for our feelings, the way we act, the way we relate to others, the way we respond to situations, especially stressful ones, and the trajectory of our life often depends on our attitude. 

 

Let's pick just a couple of examples. I was in a conference the other day and a picture was shown of a classroom full of students paying attention to their teacher who was speaking in the front of the room.  One student was looking at his cellphone.  People in the group were asked what they saw.  Almost everyone commented on the kid on the cellphone.  One or two noted that the room was full of attentive students who seemed to be diligent about their work, and that perhaps the student on the cellphone was looking something up for the teacher.  There is no question that the reaction that each person had to that picture colored their judgment of what was going on.  The reaction was based on attitude - do we judge negatively and notice the problem, or do we see the good in the room and notice all the things that are going right.  We choose how we see the situation, and this affects our reaction.  Think about the many ramifications of the different feelings we may have to that scene, and how we may judge the teacher, the students, the school, etc.  

 

Imagine you walk past a house that is on fire.  How do you react?  Well, it depends on the situation.  If the house belongs to a stranger, you may watch the firefighters do their job and notice how intense the fire is.  If it is a friend's house, you will react differently, and if it is your own house G-d forbid, it is a tragedy for you.  The fire is no different in all these cases.  The difference is in your attitude.  Even if it is a person's own house burning down, different people will react differently.  One may give up and decide that life is over.  Another may immediately think about how to rebuild.  Another may contact an architect and talk about using the opportunity to build a bigger and better house.  There are certainly many circumstances that will come into play, but the bottom line is that our attitude determines how we react and what our response is, and even the entire trajectory of our future.  Perhaps the future of those around us, our neighborhood and even the world.

 

The attitude shift from seeing disaster to seeing opportunity is what this week's Parsha, Devarim, and this period of mourning known as the Nine Days are all about.  Devarim begins, as Rashi points out, with Moshe reminding the people of the things that went wrong in the desert - the Golden Calf, the complaining etc.  It ends on a highly positive note - the beginning of the capture and settling of the Holy Land.  The Haftorah that we read this week is called Chazon - "The Vision" - relating the vision that Isaiah had of the destruction of the Holy Temple.  It can’t get much worse than that.  Yet the ending is all about rebuilding and restoration:  “I will return your judges” as in the justice and its returnees with Tzedakah.  What is our attitude going to be during this period of mourning? Are we sad, anxious, depressed and resigned to exile, darkness and pain?  Or will we shift our perspective and attitude, and recognize that the very fact that we are mourning the Temples' destruction shows our vitality and our recognition of the possibility of a great future?

 

The great Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev gave another interpretation of "Chazon" - the "vision" that we see this Shabbat and for which the Shabbat is named.  As I said before, Chazon is the name of the Haftarah reading, but Rabbi Levi Yitzchak said that on this Shabbat our souls are shown a vision of the Third Holy Temple.  Both are true.  The previous Temple is destroyed and we mourn that, but the future Temple is built, at least spiritually, and ready to be revealed on earth, when the time is right.  So it is in our hearts and mind to determine our attitude.  Are we just going to focus on the vision of destruction and despair, or are we going to focus on the potential for a great, bright future?  Our attitude will determine how we act - resignation and inaction, or increased vigor in preparing ourselves and the world for the redemption.  It's all up to us.


A journey with twists and turns...

 A journey starts at point A and ends at point B. Is it really?  Sometimes it is as simple as that.  Sometimes there may be many points along the way, often with unexpected twists and turns.   We would like to think that we know where we are headed and are in charge of our destiny, but then along comes a storm or a flood or some challenge and we need to find another way to get to where we are headed.  This is true of trips we take from place to place, and especially true of the journey of life. 

 

The Jews leaving Egypt had been told that they were heading to two places.  To receive the Torah and Mount Sinai, and to inherit and inhabit the land of Canaan.  After the great event at Sinai, they were ready to forge ahead and go into the land.  But things didn't work out that way.  First came the tragedy of the Golden Calf, which caused a major delay as Moshe went back up onto the mountain to ask for forgiveness for the people and to receive the replacement Tablets, since he had broken the first ones.  Then as the people were ready to finally head to the Promised Land, after they had built the Sanctuary, along came the tragedy of the Spies.  One day they were about to enter the land and the next morning, after the people had accepted the ten spies' bad reports, lost their faith, cried all night and given up on the dream, they were relegated to 40 years of wandering in the desert.

 

The Torah recounts 42 places the Jews camped at along the way, several of them involving unfortunate incidents.  We learn about these journeys in the second parsha that we read this week, Parshat Massei.  Despite these detours and difficulties, each of the journeys brought them a step closer to the land of Israel.  The Torah describes all of the 42 journeys "by which they left the land of Egypt," meaning that all of the steps, even the negative ones, were ultimately leading them a little farther from Egypt and closer to Israel.

 

That great journey that our ancestors went through at the formation of our People is emblematic of every person's life journey.   The first step out of Egypt is the birth of the Nation - this is our birth; when we emerge into the world.  The last step into the Promised Land is when our journey on earth comes to an end and our soul returns to the spiritual world above.  Along the way we experience many twists and turns, sometimes due to negative choices we make, sometimes due to circumstances beyond our control.  As we have seen recently, we go to sleep at night expecting everything to continue as planned, and we wake up in the morning to a completely different reality.  We witnessed this twice in the past few months.  First the shelter in place order, and then the protest, each an earth shattering event that has permanently transformed the world, and each happening just about overnight.  The impact on people has been profound.  An overwhelming number of people are reporting feelings of depression, anxiety, helplessness and despair.

 

The Torah reminds us that this is all part of the journey.  In the desert, the Jews were led from journey to journey by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night.  While we don't physically see it now, the eternal Torah is telling us that each step of the journey is being guided by Hashem.  Hashem has a plan for us, and this is all part of it.  Someone wrote to me that he is feeling despair since he is now not in control of his future.  I answered that he was never really in control, but he had just realized it then.  No matter the challenge or detour, we must remember that we are on a journey, and our job is to make each stop meaningful, to build a sanctuary in the desert and bring light to the darkness.  And it’s not just to make it through.  The purpose of the journey, and all the twist and turns along the way, even the negative ones, is to lift us to a higher level.  To reveal our inner strength, our essential soul, and to reach a level of holiness that we could never reach without each step of the journey.  

 

Besides the individual journey each of us is experiencing, alluded to by the 42 journeys through the desert as I said above, the Torah is also alluding to the journey of humanity through the millennia, beginning at Creation and culminating with the coming of Moshiach and our full and final return to the Promised Land.  Here too, the culmination of the journey is a world of light, peace and revelation, with a permanent Third Temple - a world we would never have attained without all the years of exile and hardship.  Will it really happen?  Does the world today look like it can be transformed like that?  Well, if the world can be transformed in such a frightening way literally overnight, certainly the same can happen in the positive.  We will wake up one day, very soon, to see that the world has once again been transformed overnight - this time to light and goodness.  Our Sages have said that Moshiach will come "in the blink of an eye," and "when our minds are removed," meaning that it will happen suddenly when we are not expecting it.   We no longer need to speculate about how this is possible.  We have just witnessed this phenomenon.  Of course it can happen!

  

 

 

Why don't we see miracles anymore?

 Why don’t miracles happen anymore?  The Torah tells us about plagues, sea splitting, fires coming down from heaven and more.  A very common question is, why don’t miracles happen nowadays?  Well, do miracles really not happen nowadays?  (Now there’s a Rabbi answering a question with a question.)  It depends how you define a miracle.  I was listening to a presentation this week on “The Miracle of Iron Dome” by Ari Sacher, a scientist who worked on the project.  He noted that there are two kinds of miracles.  He calls them Pesach miracles and Purim miracles.  Pesach miracles are the type I wrote about above, when the natural order was completely undone by the visible miracle.  On Purim, on the other hand, each event listed in the Megillah seems to be a natural event, but when you put the whole story together you see many small miracles that came together to create the great Purim miracle.  I have read that at the beginning of the formation of the Jewish nation, Hashem showed us that He created nature and is in full control of it, and He can arbitrarily make water stand up, for example.   Once we have that recognition, if we look at nature through that lens we can see Divine Providence in every part of nature.  The difference is that the Pesach miracles are in your face breakdowns of the natural systems, and Purim miracles are the hidden hand of Hashem in everything that happens on earth, including many events that are nothing short of miraculous.  If you look at it through that lens.

Today, the 17th day of Tamuz, we are experiencing such a miracle.  This is a sad day on the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting, Teshuvah and prayer.  It is the day when the Romans breached the wall of the City of Jerusalem in the year 69 CE, leading to the destruction of the Temple three weeks later on the 9th of Av, and the exile and dispersion of the people.  This day therefore marks the beginning of the end of the majority of the Jewish people living in the land of Israel.  We take our history for granted, but let’s think about this for a moment.  What defines a nation?  It is the country in which they live.  When people leave their land, in a generation or two their identity becomes the land to which they have moved.  All the refugees from Eastern Europe to the United States and other European countries are today fully assimilated into their countries, and think of Russia, for example, as part of their family’s past history, not as their identity.  As far as I know, this is true of every migration of nations or individuals.  So if you think about it in light of how the world works, we should have been completely lost to the world, with perhaps some references to this once great nation of Israel that lived in the Middle East and is not part of Rome, or whoever took over after them.


Today we are concluding the 39th cycle of daily Rambam study.  Again, let’s contemplate the magnitude of this event.  Rambam was the one codifier of Jewish law who explained all the Mitzvot in one book, including the Mitzvot that are not practical in our times, like those that apply only during the times when the Temple stood, and when Moshiach comes.  To study Mishnah Torah is therefore to study the entire body of Jewish law.  In other words, the entire Torah as it translates into practice.  The Rebbe saw this study as an opportunity to unite Jews throughout the world in Torah study, since this study is accessible to all, from the greatest scholar to the novice, and even children.  There are those who study three chapters of Mishnah Torah a day and those who study one chapter a day.  People for whom this is too much are able to study the corresponding Mitzvah in another book of law by the Rambam – Sefer Hamitzvot – which simply outlines the basics of the Mitzvah.  Today we are celebrating the conclusion of both the three chapters per day and the one chapter cycles.


So let’s take a minute and reflect on this incredible miracle.  On this very day when the existence of the Jewish people as a nation was supposed to end, Jews all over the world are celebrating the study of Torah.  How could this be possible?  The answer has many facets, but just to focus on two: Hashem made a covenant with the Jewish people that we will always survive, and this is accomplished through our adherence to Torah.  Judaism is not limited to any geographic area or to any era or culture.  Yes, the land of Israel is inexorably connected to the Jewish people, but Judaism does not depend on it.  What makes us Jewish is the Torah and our eternal bond with Hashem.


I encourage you to join this unifying study in one of the three ways, at least by studying the daily Mitzvah.  You can find the text, as well as audio  and video classes, here.  I also encourage you to join us for a “Siyum” celebration of the conclusion of the study cycle on Sunday evening here.


May we soon merit the fulfillment of the prophecy that this day of mourning and fasting will be transformed to a day of joy and celebration with the coming of Moshiach, the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, and the return of all Jews to our land.


A talking donkey?

A talking donkey? An angel with a big, sharp sword?  Are we reading a fantasy story?  In the second part of the double Parsha we read this week, Balak, the Torah tells this fantastic story of Bilaam, the evil prophet, on his way to curse the Jewish people at the behest of Balak, the king of Moav.  Hashem had not wanted him to go, but he exercised his free choice and went anyway.  The donkey he was riding saw an angel with a drawn sword blocking the way and Bilaam didn’t see him.  This happened three times.  The first time the donkey moved away from the road into the fields.  The second time the donkey squeezed next to a stone wall and scraped Bilaam’s leg, and the third time, on a narrow path with nowhere to go, the donkey just stopped and crouched.  Each time, Bilaam beat his donkey.  After the third beating, Hashem “opened the donkey’s mouth” and she started speaking to Bilaam, asking him why he beat her.  Subsequently, Bilaam saw the angel with a drawn sword who explained that he had come to block him from going ahead with his diabolical plan, but Bilaam went ahead anyway. 

Although he was not able to curse the Jews and instead gave them great blessings, Bilaam still managed to create havoc.  Until that time, since the Great Flood, the nations of the world followed the Torah’s moral teachings relating to married life and gender relations.  Bilaam, the great prophet, encouraged the women of Moav and Midian to break that tradition in the most disgusting way, to demean themselves and seduce the Jewish men, because, as he said, “the G-d [of the Jews] hates promiscuity.”  Many of the Jews were caught up in the web of promiscuity and idol worship, and a plague killed many thousands of people, leading to the story of Pinchas that we will read next week.  To put it all in current terms: Hashem wanted Bilaam to put a mask on his mouth, but Bilaam instead spread the virus of hatred and ended up creating an epidemic. 

So, I have two questions.  The first is: Did this really happen?  A talking donkey?  There are a few classic commentators on the Torah who say that the whole thing was a dream.  However, Rashi teaches that the event happened literally, as described.  So the second question is: Why?  There is a rule in Torah that Hashem does not perform miracles for nothing.  Miracles do happen, but only for a specific purpose, and in general Hashem runs the world through the laws of nature.  What would the purpose be to have a donkey speak? 

 

The Rebbe teaches a powerful lesson on this, giving us a perspective that completely changes the narrative.  The name used for G-d in the Parsha changes from Elokim until this part of the story to Havayye (this is the way we say the unpronounceable four letter name written with the letter yud-hay-vav-hay known as the tetragrammaton) from this point.  Each of Hashem’s names represents another expression of Hashem’s revelation.  The name Elokim refers to judgment, and Havayye represents mercy.  When Bilaam was arguing with Hashem about going to curse the Jews, Hashem appeared to him with judgement, expressing anger at his decision to go on this trip.  But despite Bilaams wickedness, Hashem shows him mercy and tries to stop him from harming himself and others.  We see this in a fascinating verse (Bamidbar 22:22) where the name of Hashem changes in the middle of the verse: “G-d's (Elokim) wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord (Havaye) stationed himself on the road to thwart him…”  Rashi comments: “It was an angel of mercy and he wanted to prevent him from sinning, for should he sin, he would perish.”  Bilaam was one of the greatest prophets of all time, but he was obsessed with chasing wealth, honor and debauchery.  He brought promiscuity to the world and caused tremendous harm to the Jewish nation.  Nevertheless, Hashem made a great miracle to have his donkey talk, in order to get his attention.  Bilaam was known for his mouth as his curses always came true.  Hashem was sending him a message that He is the only one who gives the gift of speech, and if He chooses even a donkey can talk.  Hashem wanted Bilaam to be shocked into realizing how far he had sunk and to pull him out of the dark path he had chosen.

 

This is a perspective that the Rebbe taught us, that Hashem truly loves every person, even one who has sunk to the depths of depravity, and wants to help him or her find the correct path.  We see this approach from the Rebbe’s father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson.  This Shabbat, the 12th day of Tammuz, we will celebrate the anniversary of his release from Soviet prison.  The “previous Rebbe” as Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneerson is known was arrested by the “Jewish section” of the Soviet secret police, who wanted to eradicate Judaism and saw the Rebbe as the primary obstacle, and sentenced to death.  The sentence was miraculously commuted to ten years in a labor camp then to three years, and then a short while later, on the 12th of Tamuz, he was freed.  You can read all about the arrest and liberation here

 

After this horrific experience, the previous Rebbe, followed by our Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, (they were relatives, both descendants of the Schneerson family) taught us to look at every individual as a beloved child of Hashem.  While of course we must protect ourselves from our enemies and engage in self-defense when necessary, our goal should always be to transform darkness to light and to help spread the Torah’s message of goodness and kindness.

Rebellion or Entitlement?

Was Korach not right?  What a question, you may say.  Korach was a leader in the Levite tribe who rebelled against Moshe and Aharon.  When we read the narrative in the Torah in this week’s Parsha, Korach, we see that he attacked Moshe on several fronts.  The crux of his argument, according to Rashi, was that he was passed over for leadership.  Moshe came from an illustrious family.  His father Amram was the leader of the Jews, and he had three great brothers, Yitzhar, Chevron and Uziel.  Amram’s two sons, Moshe and Aharon, got the top two leadership positions, Moshe was the “Nassi” – President is one way to translate that – and Aharon was the High Priest.  These were positions of leadership for the entire nation.  Another position of leadership within the tribe of Levi was the Nassi of the illustrious Kehot family, of which Moshe, Aharon and Korach were a part.  Moshe gave that position to Elitzafan the son of Uziel.  Korach was mad.  OK, he said, “the eldest brother’s family gets two leaders, but next in line should be me, the son of the second brother, Yitzhar.”  Why did Moshe give this position to the son of the youngest?   Of course once Korach started a rebellion, it developed to include all kinds of other grievances.  

The question I am raising though is, Wasn’t he right?  Korach was a very prominent leader.  He was the wealthiest man in the nation.  (There is a Yiddish saying: “Reich vi Korach” – wealthy like Korach.)  He was a great scholar, well respected, and was even a prophet!  His case was taken up by 250 judicial leaders, all appointed as judges for the Jewish people.  So why, indeed, was he not chosen for that position, and was he not justified to claim his rightful position?  The easy answer is, of course, that whatever Moshe did, he followed Hashem’s direction.  As we read two weeks ago, Hashem describes Moshe as “in all My house he is faithful.”  Korach’s mistake was that he did not accept that Moshe was completely devoted to Hashem’s will with no personal ego, and thought Moshe was filling the positions on his own.  The question remains, though, why indeed was Korach not given the position.  

 

Korach’s story is discussed extensively by our Sages in the Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah and Chassidus, and there are many levels of explanation.  I want to focus on one point that speaks to me today.  True leadership is not a meritocracy.  A leader is not something that should be given or taken because someone “deserves” it due to position, family, wealth, or any other perceived “right” that the person has.  A true leader is not trying to be a leader.  A true leader is someone to whom the needs and wants of the people he or she leads are all that matters.  True leaders are almost always reluctant to take any official position, and when they do, it is because that is what the people they lead need.  Moshe argued with Hashem for seven days at the burning bush, asking him to choose another.  And when Moshe did stand up powerfully to crush Korach’s rebellion and assert his position, it was without any arrogance or sense of self.  It was purely in order to ensure the peace and success of the people.  We see previously when the Jews were complaining to Moshe and Aharon that Moshe twice uses the term “Venachnu ma?” – What (or who) are we? (Shemot 16:7, 8)  Chassidus explains that Moshe really felt that he was nothing, only a conduit for Hashem’s will.  Moshe devoted himself to the people, completely ignoring his personal needs, even sacrificing his very name in the Torah to protect those who had worshipped the Golden Calf, and even attempting to make peace with Korach’s buddies, the troublemakers and nemeses of Moshe, just before they were swallowed up by the ground.

 

Korach, on the other hand, demanded his “deserved” position.  He was a man of wealth, of stature, of great lineage and a great scholar and prophet to boot.  However, that is not what makes a leader.  A leader is a servant, doing what it takes, including asserting his leadership position when necessary, to take care of the people.  

 

We saw a leader like this in our generation.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who passed away on the third day of Tamuz, was the “Moshe” of our times.  I don’t have the space here to go into the details, you can find a tremendous amount of information here, and I hope you take some time today, the 26th yartzeit – anniversary of his passing, to reflect on his impact on each of us.  Suffice it to say that here was a man who showed what true leadership is – completely selfless, devoted to the needs of every person in the world, initially reluctant but, or perhaps because of that, arguably one of the most powerful Jewish leaders of all time.

 

His leadership continues to this day, in several ways.  Since a leader of that stature is ego-less and his leadership is purely as a conduit of Hashem’s will, his greatness and impact are not limited to his physical body.  Hashem is eternal and His words passed on by a Tzaddik, and their effect, are eternal.  In addition, the Rebbe inspired a generation of leaders, whose entire purpose is to serve.  The 5,000 Shluchim families around the world are focused entirely on serving the people.  Following the Rebbe’s inspiration, Shluchim and Shluchot all over the world serve the Jewish people, not trying to build “positions'' or “careers,” and not thinking of themselves as leaders.  Even the name “Shliach” means an emissary.  And because of the focus on serving the needs of others, the Rebbe and his emissaries Chabad have effected a transformation in the world.  

 

This transformation is bringing us to the final, great transformation, when the world will reveal it’s spiritual source, the Word of Hashem, with the coming of Mashiach.  This was ultimately the Rebbe’s goal, and together we can bring it to fruition.  For ideas on how to mark this holy day, please see here


 

Rebellion or Entitlement?

Was Korach not right?  What a question, you may say.  Korach was a leader in the Levite tribe who rebelled against Moshe and Aharon.  When we read the narrative in the Torah in this week’s Parsha, Korach, we see that he attacked Moshe on several fronts.  The crux of his argument, according to Rashi, was that he was passed over for leadership.  Moshe came from an illustrious family.  His father Amram was the leader of the Jews, and he had three great brothers, Yitzhar, Chevron and Uziel.  Amram’s two sons, Moshe and Aharon, got the top two leadership positions, Moshe was the “Nassi” – President is one way to translate that – and Aharon was the High Priest.  These were positions of leadership for the entire nation.  Another position of leadership within the tribe of Levi was the Nassi of the illustrious Kehot family, of which Moshe, Aharon and Korach were a part.  Moshe gave that position to Elitzafan the son of Uziel.  Korach was mad.  OK, he said, “the eldest brother’s family gets two leaders, but next in line should be me, the son of the second brother, Yitzhar.”  Why did Moshe give this position to the son of the youngest?   Of course once Korach started a rebellion, it developed to include all kinds of other grievances.  

The question I am raising though is, Wasn’t he right?  Korach was a very prominent leader.  He was the wealthiest man in the nation.  (There is a Yiddish saying: “Reich vi Korach” – wealthy like Korach.)  He was a great scholar, well respected, and was even a prophet!  His case was taken up by 250 judicial leaders, all appointed as judges for the Jewish people.  So why, indeed, was he not chosen for that position, and was he not justified to claim his rightful position?  The easy answer is, of course, that whatever Moshe did, he followed Hashem’s direction.  As we read two weeks ago, Hashem describes Moshe as “in all My house he is faithful.”  Korach’s mistake was that he did not accept that Moshe was completely devoted to Hashem’s will with no personal ego, and thought Moshe was filling the positions on his own.  The question remains, though, why indeed was Korach not given the position.  

 

Korach’s story is discussed extensively by our Sages in the Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah and Chassidus, and there are many levels of explanation.  I want to focus on one point that speaks to me today.  True leadership is not a meritocracy.  A leader is not something that should be given or taken because someone “deserves” it due to position, family, wealth, or any other perceived “right” that the person has.  A true leader is not trying to be a leader.  A true leader is someone to whom the needs and wants of the people he or she leads are all that matters.  True leaders are almost always reluctant to take any official position, and when they do, it is because that is what the people they lead need.  Moshe argued with Hashem for seven days at the burning bush, asking him to choose another.  And when Moshe did stand up powerfully to crush Korach’s rebellion and assert his position, it was without any arrogance or sense of self.  It was purely in order to ensure the peace and success of the people.  We see previously when the Jews were complaining to Moshe and Aharon that Moshe twice uses the term “Venachnu ma?” – What (or who) are we? (Shemot 16:7, 8)  Chassidus explains that Moshe really felt that he was nothing, only a conduit for Hashem’s will.  Moshe devoted himself to the people, completely ignoring his personal needs, even sacrificing his very name in the Torah to protect those who had worshipped the Golden Calf, and even attempting to make peace with Korach’s buddies, the troublemakers and nemeses of Moshe, just before they were swallowed up by the ground.

 

Korach, on the other hand, demanded his “deserved” position.  He was a man of wealth, of stature, of great lineage and a great scholar and prophet to boot.  However, that is not what makes a leader.  A leader is a servant, doing what it takes, including asserting his leadership position when necessary, to take care of the people.  

 

We saw a leader like this in our generation.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who passed away on the third day of Tamuz, was the “Moshe” of our times.  I don’t have the space here to go into the details, you can find a tremendous amount of information here, and I hope you take some time today, the 26th yartzeit – anniversary of his passing, to reflect on his impact on each of us.  Suffice it to say that here was a man who showed what true leadership is – completely selfless, devoted to the needs of every person in the world, initially reluctant but, or perhaps because of that, arguably one of the most powerful Jewish leaders of all time.

 

His leadership continues to this day, in several ways.  Since a leader of that stature is ego-less and his leadership is purely as a conduit of Hashem’s will, his greatness and impact are not limited to his physical body.  Hashem is eternal and His words passed on by a Tzaddik, and their effect, are eternal.  In addition, the Rebbe inspired a generation of leaders, whose entire purpose is to serve.  The 5,000 Shluchim families around the world are focused entirely on serving the people.  Following the Rebbe’s inspiration, Shluchim and Shluchot all over the world serve the Jewish people, not trying to build “positions'' or “careers,” and not thinking of themselves as leaders.  Even the name “Shliach” means an emissary.  And because of the focus on serving the needs of others, the Rebbe and his emissaries Chabad have effected a transformation in the world.  

 

This transformation is bringing us to the final, great transformation, when the world will reveal it’s spiritual source, the Word of Hashem, with the coming of Mashiach.  This was ultimately the Rebbe’s goal, and together we can bring it to fruition.  For ideas on how to mark this holy day, please see here


 

To overcome anything, remember this...

 Yes, of course you can!  

Life sometimes seems overwhelming.  Obligations are hard to meet, goals difficult to complete, and challenges seem insurmountable.  This seems especially true with our relationship with Hashem.  The Torah tells us to live a spiritual life, to bring holiness into the physical world, to overcome our negative impulses, to always be in a state of joy and not allow any feelings of sadness or despair to overcome us.  (I am not addressing clinical depression, which is an illness and requires medical attention.)  We are required to think of the welfare of others, to give Tzedakah, to overlook slights and forgive our fellow when they ask for forgiveness.  When thrown into a state of upheaval, without social interaction, with reduced earning capacity and financial insecurity, with dangers lurking on the street and in every shopping trip, we are supposed to continue on the path of optimism, to increase our acts of goodness and kindness, and to strengthen our bond with Hashem.  This is a daunting task, and sometimes seemingly impossible.

Well that’s what the spies, who were sent by Moshe to scout the land of Israel, thought.  As we read in this week’s Parsha, Moshe told 12 spies to go and see the land.  He told them to see what the land is like - were the people strong, was there a large population, how fertile was the land, what did the produce look like and did the people have spiritual strength.  They came back and gave a full report of all the above:  “The land is good, the people are strong, some are giants, the cities are fortified, the fruit is oversized like the people, they saw us as grasshoppers (they were so big that the spies looked tiny) and we saw ourselves that way too.  We can’t capture the land, it’s too difficult.”  Although two strong voices, the spies Yehoshua and Kalev, spoke up in favor of going forward and following Hashem’s will, they were drowned out.  The people gave up and cried all night, and they ended up spending 40 years in the desert.  The ten spies themselves were punished with death by Hashem.

The age old question:  What did the spies do wrong?  They were sent on a mission and fulfilled the mission perfectly.  They reported exactly what they saw and reported it to the people.  Is it possible that because it was not what Moshe wanted to hear they were punished?  Doesn’t seem to be very just.  The answer is that they were not sent to see if it was possible to capture the land.  Hashem had told the Jewish people to go to Israel, their rightful homeland, and settle there.  Of course they could do it!  Hashem would not tell them to do something that was impossible.  Even an ordinary intelligent person will not order someone to do something that is impossible for them.  How much more so the Creator of all life?  There was never a question that, no matter how daunting and frightening a task, Hashem would make it possible for the people to do it.  But Hashem wants us to do Mitzvot using our own intellect and our own physical capabilities, and not to rely on miracles.  So Moshe sent spies to figure out the best way to approach the capture, depending on how strong or weak the people were, etc.  The spies made the fatal mistake of making a judgment that it could not be done.  All the people needed to do was give it their best effort, and Hashem would take care of the rest.

The written Torah is not a story book, and does not say negative things about people or events just for the history.  That information is told in midrash, Aggada and Talmud.  The Torah is a lesson in life for each of us at all times.  In all areas of life, we always have the capacity to fulfill our responsibilities as human beings and s Jews.  If Hashem wants it of us, and we know this because it is a Mitzvah in the Torah, He will, without a doubt, help us make it happen.  It may seem to us as if the mountain is too high to climb or the challenge too great to overcome, but that is defeatist thinking that has no place in Torah.  The challenges and difficulties are part of nature, but nature itself was created and is run by Hashem.  It is our job to go forward, to do the Mitzvah, to put all our strength and all our capabilities into joyously approaching the task, and we are assured that Hashem, who would not demand of us more than we can do, will make it possible, miraculously if necessary.  No matter where we are in life, in connection or observance, no matter what the challenge to our Torah observance, we can overcome it. 

Yes, of course we can.


Complaints and Control

 

complain.jpgComplaining.  It is part of the human condition.  People complain about everything you can imagine.  Perhaps the biggest complaint is that people complain so much.  For almost every complaint there is a reason, and often a valid one.  Let us set the scene - the Jews were in the desert.  They were traveling at high speed, Hashem fitting three days of travel into one.  So what did they do? They complained, as described in this week’s Parsha, Beha’alotcha (Bamidbar 11:1).  In addition to the complainers themselves and those who were part of the “mixed multitude”(Egyptians who had joined them at the Exodus), the leaders were held responsible and punished (based on Rashi’s interpretation).  You could find excuses for their complaints - they were in the middle of a desert, they were being driven to travel at a high speed, and were probably sick and tired of being quarantined away from the rest of the world.  Nevertheless, they were punished, as were the leaders for not educating them properly.


The reason Hashem drove them so fast was because he wanted them to get to their goal – the land of Israel – as quickly as possible.  This was before the fiasco of the spies, when it was decreed that they would spend 40 years in the desert, but they focused on their immediate discomfort instead of the positive purpose and intended outcome.  The antidote to complaining, it seems, is to rise above the problem we are facing and put things in perspective.  


Our lives are like the journey the Jews took through the desert from Egypt to Israel.  The Exodus was the birth of the people, and arrival in the Holy Land is metaphorically the return of our soul to the spiritual worlds at the end of our lives.  The journey has many twists and turns, sometimes exciting, sometimes not so comfortable.  The Jews were guided on their journey by Hashem, as described in the Parsha.  They had no control over where or when they went.  When the cloud, a sign of Hashem’s presence, lifted, they traveled.  When it settled, they camped.  They had no idea what tomorrow held in store and where they would be the next day, but they did know that they were being guided by Hashem in the direction they needed to go.  What they did have control over was their attitude.  


As we go through life, we face many journeys.  Sometimes we think we are in control of where we are and where we are headed, and then along comes something that reminds us that we are not.  It is hard to face the fact that we really are not in control, and human nature may move us to complain.  And there is plenty to complain about!  The Torah teaches us to always remember that there is a purpose.  We may not see it that way initially, but with faith and acceptance of Hashem’s will, and the understanding that everything we are experiencing is leading us closer to our goal, we will not only refrain from complaining but celebrate what we have.  Yes, we may feel we have reason to complain, but that will get us nowhere, and in fact shows that we are not recognizing the gifts we have.  We need to focus on using moving forward on the journey, and that is how we will get where we are going.


There is another interpretation of the metaphor of the journey in the desert.  Beginning with the Exodus, the history of our people is full of many journeys, some of them in vast arid deserts of exile.  It is worthwhile to remember, through all the twists and turns we face, that we are not just going around in circles.  We are headed to the Holy Land, the day when the entire world will be transformed into a place that reveals Hashem’s presence.  Perhaps the current discomfort is accelerating the process.  I believe it is.


My goodness, what is happening?

 Someone compared 2020 so far to a person looking both ways before crossing the street and getting hit by an airplane.  My goodness, what is happening?  A terrifying virus wreaking havoc on the entire world, and now murder, riots, pillaging, curfews and fear.  What can we do?  How are we supposed to react?  The Torah is “our life and the length of our days” (Devarim 30:20), and our Sages have taught that we can find an answer to life in the Parsha of the week.  Since the Torah, the eternal word of Hashem, is the “blueprint for the world,” there is nothing that happens that is not reflected in the Torah.  And since it is the “living word of Hashem,” the current Parsha is our guide to dealing with whatever is happening now.

In Parshat Nasso we read about the Leviim (Levites) and their various jobs in carrying the Mishkan (sanctuary) through the desert.  The mishkan was a marvel of architecture – a building that housed the Holy Ark, the Menorah, two Altars, a golden Table and more, and yet was completely portable.  There were three Levite families, Gershon, Kehot and Merari.  Gershon carried the roof coverings and curtains, Merari carried the beams and posts and accessories and Kehot carried the most holy items including the Holy Ark.  For almost 40 years, the Jews wandered through the desert and took the Mishkan with them.  The practical reason for this was that they had to get from Egypt to Israel, and because of the sins of the Golden Calf and the spies, they were destined to be on this journey for 40 years, so they had to have a portable Mishkan to bring their offerings and to see Hashem’s revelation.


Chassidus discusses another, deeper reason why they had to go from place to place in the desert, and the eternal impact that this journey had on the world.  In a spiritual sense, a desert represents kelipa – the forces of negativity and darkness.  The Sinai desert for the most part is a place where nothing grows, and as the Torah describes, a place of snakes, serpents and scorpions.  Where there is light and goodness, positive things happen and the world is affected.  Holiness bears fruit.  A place devoid of holiness and light is a place where no benefit comes to the world, like a desert where nothing grows and there is just negativity and danger.  Goodness and kindness gives and shares while darkness and hostility takes and does not produce. The goal of our life on earth is to transform darkness to light and to bring goodness into the darkest recesses of the world through Mitzvot, acts of goodness and holiness.  When Moshiach comes, this ideal world where darkness has been transformed to light, will be revealed and will be “filled with the knowledge of G-d.” It is a tough job, since in order to create the world Hashem hid Himself, and the world naturally leans toward ego and selfishness.  It can be done of course, this is our entire purpose, but we need support from Above.


For 40 years the Holy Ark and the rest of the Mishkan wandered through the desert.  The revelation of Hashem’s light in the holy Tablets, the light of the Menorah and the other service of the Mishkan suffused the desert with holiness and weakened the intense darkness and hostility of the desert.  At that time it was only temporary.  The world was still not filled with Hashem’s light, but the darkness was mitigated somewhat, and this gave us the spiritual strength to start the work of transforming the world.


So when we see so much darkness and destruction, we should not fear the evil and think that we are helpless.  We can each do our part, each in our own little corner of the world, to bring light and holiness.  Whether by praying and studying the holy words of Torah, or by giving Tzedakah to the needy and to support Torah institutions that spread goodness and holiness, or by reaching out to others in friendship and unity, we do make a difference.  Each festering argument that we resolve, each apology to someone we have hurt, each blessing we make over kosher food, each Shabbat candle or Tefillin or holy book that we open and study, each of these softens the desert of selfishness, division and destruction.  The desert may still look like a desert, but its strength and impact are weakened.  


An important spiritual protection, especially in times of danger, is the Mezuzah.  While Mitzvot should be observed without expectation of reward, just in order to fulfil Hashem’s will and bring His light into the world, Rambam writes that the protective qualities of Mezuzot are part of the Mitzvah itself.  Hashem wants us to put them up in order to provide Divine protection.  May I suggest that you consider placing kosher Mezuzot on your doors, and if you haven’t done so in a while to check those that are already there to be sure they are kosher.  We can help with that, please contact our office.


And while I’m talking about Mezuzot, you may want to join us for an amazing movie this Sunday, “The Rabbi Goes West,” which tells the story of a Rabbi who decided to put a Mezuzah on every Jewish him in Montana. See details here. Stay safe and healthy.


Rocks and Sand for a Wedding

 Why was the Torah given in a desert?  The Sinai desert is a bleak place, mainly sand and rocks.  What a place for such a monumental event!  The question becomes stronger when we think of what the Talmud says that the day of the Giving of the Torah was like a wedding.  The relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem is compared to a marriage between a husband and wife.  There are many explanations for this metaphor in classic writings, especially in Chassidus.  The “wedding” was when the Torah was given, when the covenant and eternal bond was sealed, and the Tablets were the marriage document.  When was the last time you attended a wedding in the middle of a sandy and rocky desert?  Maybe now for safety it would be a good idea, but in general, when you have a choice of any environment, would you choose that one?

 

It is easy to say that this was where the Jews were at the time, on their journey from Egypt to Israel along the southern border.  Nevertheless, every detail of Torah is exact and teaches us a lesson in life.  In fact, that is the meaning of the word “Torah” – teaching.  So it makes sense to assume that there is a lesson here too.  One of the reasons that our Sages taught is that the desert is a place with no ownership.  It is a place where nobody can claim that it belongs to them, and Hashem was teaching us that the Torah is nobody’s property, anyone and everyone can study it and connect to it.  One of the fundamental values of Judaism is that the Torah is the domain of every individual, not just the leaders and scholars.  Nobody needs to feel that they are not worthy of Torah, and nobody can claim that they have exclusive rights to it.

 

However the Rebbe takes the question a step further.  Halacha (Jewish law) talks about two types of public places.  There is a street or marketplace, that is called in Hebrew “reshut harabim” – the property of the many, or the community, meaning it belongs to “everyone.”  Then there is a desert, which belongs to no-one.  If the location of the Torah giving is supposed to send a message that it is available to everyone, it would seem to make more sense to hold the event in a place owned by all, not owned by no-one?

 

The answer can be found by understanding the function of Torah in the world.  We are charged with “bringing the upper worlds below, and raising the lower worlds above.”  By studying Torah, and by observing a Mitzvah, we bring together the spiritual and the physical.  So there are two entities here, the physical, or “below,” and the spiritual, or “above.”  In order to bring them together, the Torah combines them both.  On one hand the Torah is Hashem’s wisdom and will, something that is not possible for a human to fathom.  On the other hand, Hashem has made it accessible to our minds, on some level, so that we can relate to it on the physical plane.  Torah study is a very intellectual pursuit, and it is important for us to study with our minds.  It is our minds that make us human, and the idea of Torah is to permeate every part of us, not just our actions, but also to fill our minds.  Sometimes, when we get caught up in the understanding, we may tend to forget that the Torah is still, even in its current intellectual state, Hashem’s wisdom.  It originates, and is connected to the “above.”  So in order to truly “get” Torah and have it accomplish its purpose, we must always remember that in actuality the Torah is beyond our understanding and above any possibility for us to grasp.  In practical terms that means that we cannot just decide on our own what the Torah should mean or hope we think it should be interpreted.  We must always look into the Torah, remembering its Divine source, and try to understand what the Torah is teaching us – what Hashem’s will and purpose is for us.

 

This is why the Torah was given in the ownerless desert.  While each of us has the ability to study and understand Torah, it is not ours to interpret and twist as we wish.  It is Hashem’s Torah, which in His kindness he has given us access to with our minds.  This also explains why on the Shabbat before Shavuot, the day of the Giving of the Torah, we read the Parsha “Bamidbar” which means “in the desert.”

 

I think we can glean a special message for our times.  Shavuot is an especially important time for us to be in the Synagogue and to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments from the Torah with a minyan.  It’s still a week away and who knows, maybe here as in some other states, we will be permitted to hold safe, outdoor services.  But if not, despair not.  The Torah is not bound to one particular place.  It is free and open to all, all people and all places.  This week is a great time for us to contemplate our relationship with Torah, and to prepare for Shavuot by strengthening that relationship and working on bringing together the spiritual and physical.  Everyone, bar none, can do it.


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Total Health - Body & Soul

 I was out on my bike today, as I try to do just about every day, getting exercise, taking in the fresh air with the wind in my face, making sure to give all people I pass a wide berth.  It is also an opportunity to see the wonders of Hashem’s creation - the Bay, the mountains, the blue sky with puffy white clouds, the birds and the wildlife. It is also a great opportunity to listen to a talk by the Rebbe or another Torah class, and a safe and responsible way to get out of the house, not to mention the psychological and mental benefits.  In the process, I know that I am doing something in the service of Hashem.  Rambam says (Mishne Torah, De’ot 3:1): “Maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G-d.”  Our body is a vehicle for the Divine soul, to bring holiness to the world and to elevate the world, and to do that properly we need a healthy body.  I once read a letter from the Rebbe to someone who apparently was upset that the doctor had told him to exercise and he felt that the time he spent exercising was taking him away from his service to G-d.  (I am speculating because I only saw the Rebbe’s answer, not the original letter to the Rebbe.)  The Rebbe answered that he should realize that, as the Rambam says, this is among the ways of Hashem, and he should do it with joy.

 

What does all this have to do with this week’s Parsha?  We think of our physical and spiritual needs as two separate worlds.  There is prayer and Torah study, giving Tzedakah and making blessings, etc., and then there is our job, and maintaining our physical health.  The Torah teaches us a different perspective.  The Parsha begins with the laws of Shmita, the Sabbatical year.  Every seventh year, farmers in Israel must stop their work in the field, as the Torah says (Vayikra 25:2): “When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest as a Shabbat to Hashem.”  The Torah continues: “Six years you shall plough… and the Seventh year you shall leave it alone…”  If we read the verses carefully, the words seem to be out of order.  Instead of saying: When you come to the land… you shall work for six years and rest on the seventh, the Torah says: When you come to the land… the land shall rest.  Then it says that we may work for six years and allow the land to rest on the seventh.  Those first words “the land shall rest” seem redundant and premature.

 

Chassidus teaches us that this seeming disorganization is teaching us a profound lesson.  The purpose of the work for six years itself is in order to transform the world.  Judaism does not want us to strive only for spiritual experiences, but rather to be grounded on earth and bring the spiritual and material together.  It is hard to focus on that goal when we are involved every day in keeping the crops going and handling the reality of farm work.  Therefore, once every seven years we stop and reconnect with who we are and our purpose.  But here too, it is possible for a person to think of the six years as separate from the seventh.  For six years I am a farmer, and for one year I connect with my spiritual self.  So the Torah tells us that as soon as we come into the land and start the six years of work in the field, we should remember the purpose of it all.  “When you come into the land that I am giving you [and getting caught up in the labor on the farm, remember the goal] to bring Shabbat – holiness – into the world.”

 

As I wrote recently, every act we do can bring holiness, and every part of our life can be geared toward fulfilling our mission.  Life is much more meaningful this way.  So I encourage you to get out and get some exercise and fresh air, and remember that this too is part of being holy.

 

Passover Again?!

Remember all the work that went into preparing for Pesach?  Cleaning the house, transforming the kitchen, preparing the Seder, and all the observances relating to the holiday, not to mention all that Matzah and wine? Especially this year when we were all at home all day.  Can you imagine doing it all again just a month later? Well tonight, Thursday night and Friday, we celebrate a holiday known as “Pesach Sheini” – the second Pesach. But don’t worry, it does not involve all the above-mentioned, and in fact, it would seem that it is not directly relevant to our lives. Pesach Sheni, on its simple level, is a make-up day, to make up what a person missed the first time around.  In order to fulfill the Mitzvah of offering and eating the Pesach offering, a sheep or a lamb, a person was required to be “tahor” –loosely translated as ritually pure, and in Jerusalem.  If someone was “tamei” – impure by the various ways a person may be in that state as taught in the Torah, or far away from Jerusalem at the time of the offering, they had a requirement to bring the offering the next month, on the 14th of Iyar, and would eat it on the night of the 15th at a Seder with Matzah and bitter herbs.

Today we are not able to offer the first Pesach offering, nor can we offer the second, since the Temple is not standing, so on a technical level it does not apply to us.  But of course as in all matters of Torah, there is spiritual relevance that applies today. This is borne out by the fact that we do observe the day one some level, by not saying “Tachnun” – supplication prayers that are omitted on Shabbat and holidays, and also by the custom to eat Matzah (ideally Shmurah Matzah) on this day.  There are many mystical messages that are indeed very relevant to us, and as I have tried to do lately, I will focus on one lesson that I think particularly speaks to our current Shelter in Place situation.


Let’s take a look at the time of the two holidays, Pesach and Pesach Sheini, on the calendar.  Pesach is in the month of Nissan and corresponds to the time the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt and suddenly, overnight, became free.  Pesach Sheini is a month later.  By this time the Jews were completely freed of the Egyptian bondage and four weeks into counting the 49 days leading up to receiving the Torah at Sinai.  There is a great deal written about the Pesach sacrifice and its connection to the Exodus.  Pesach is translated as “Passover,” but a more accurate translation of the word Pesach is to leap over.  The lamb that the Jews offered as a sacrifice was the Egyptian deity, so it was a great leap of faith for the Jews to offer what was the local idol to Hashem.  The whole Exodus was called Pesach because the only way the sudden transition from slavery, and the corrupt and idolatrous Egyptian life, to freedom and bonding with Hashem through Torah, was to break away, to leap out, so to speak, of one existence to a completely opposite existence.  It could not have been a gradual transition, it had to happen as a complete break.


Once that break had happened, there was a gradual growth process leading to the Sinai experience.  The 49 days that we commemorate by counting the Omer were designed to gradually transform the 49 character traits, as explained in Chassidus, from Egyptian style to Torah style character traits.  In the middle of this organized, step-by-step process comes Pesach Sheini, another leap.  Where does a leap fit in here?  The Rebbe explains that the point of Pesach Sheini is exactly that, to bring a leap forward into the step-by-step process.  We should not become complacent in our measured progress, but always strive to grow exponentially. 


So here, I think, is a direct message to us today.  When we were faced with the shock of shutting down the synagogues and community events, of a Pesach without family or friends, of the inability to get the inspiration that one receives attending a Torah class or a gathering of friends to say L’Chaim and schmooze and learn, we were forced to reevaluate our lives.  We quickly found ways to adapt and to bring spiritual growth into our new reality.  Many people started spending more time praying and studying, looking for online inspirational classes and events, and reconnecting with loved ones, in order to try to make up for what they are missing and to use the time for personal growth.


Two months have passed, and we have pretty much accepted our new reality, although we hope it won’t be this way for much longer.  Have we settled into a routine?  Have we become complacent and stopped trying to “use the opportunity” for growth and spiritual achievement?  Pesach Sheini reminds us:  Complacency is not a good thing.  Make sure you are continuing to grow.  Try and get back into that space of a month ago when you were looking for ways to find meaning in this disastrous situation and do all you could to make sure you don’t succumb to negativity, fear and despair.  Look for ways to reignite the spark of excitement in the newly discovered learning and spiritual opportunities.  Know that just as in the original Pesach Sheini, a missed opportunity could be made up, today too, we have the ability to leap forward and bring the Pesach spirit, the exodus from limitations and the move forward to connection with Hashem, into our stay-at-home lives.


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Kedoshim: "Be Holy" Who Me?

 “Be holy!”  That is a commandment in this week’s Torah portion. Since this is a short year, meaning a year with twelve months in the Jewish calendar and not a leap year with 13, some of the Torah portions are doubled up, so this week we read two Parshiyot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.  The second Parsha begins with “Kedoshim Tiheyu – You shall be holy.” The Mitzvot in the Torah are clear directives on how to behave.  What exactly does “be holy” mean? In fact I’d like you to stop for a moment and think about what those words mean to you.  I think most people will think of someone with a long white beard, perhaps someone meditating on the top of a mountain, or an elderly woman in a long dress handing out food to the poor and homeless. 

 

Taking this idea a step further, I think each of us has areas of holiness in our own lives, regardless of how “holy” we may consider ourselves. May I ask you to take a moment and consider what that is in your life?  For some it may be prayer, for others when lighting a Shabbat candle.  Some may experience holiness in the synagogue, and others when in the presence of someone we consider a holy person.  For some, who don’t really think about holiness much at all, Yom Kippur could be a holy experience, and for someone who does not relate to Yom Kippur, perhaps attendance at a wedding ceremony or a funeral might be considered a holy moment. It is safe to say that we think of holiness as something out of the ordinary that we experience occasionally, some more than others.

 

I want to present a different perspective, one that is especially relevant in today’s Shelter in Place world, when we do not have the opportunity to go to “holy” events.  Ramban – Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, one of the great classical commentators on the Torah, quotes the Midrash saying that to “be holy” means to sanctify our day to day actions.  Chassidus explains this to mean that rather than thinking of our lives as mundane and holiness as something separate, holiness is something that can permeate our entire existence.  We can think of life as work, food and drink and other physical pursuits, and as holiness as something we reach for to bring meaning into our lives.  Or we can identify ourselves as a person with a mission to improve the world, and this is something that we can do in every thought, speech and action.  I can serve Hashem by praying to Him and connecting to him, or by saying a blessing before I eat.  But I can also serve Hashem by running an honest business, by refraining from gossip in my regular discussions, and even by infusing my eating and sleeping with meaning for the purpose of being healthy in order to make a difference in the world.

 

How does this relate to our current situation?  Holiness is not about going to the synagogue, although a Shul is a holy place.  The is a holy sanctuary for Hashem, when we fill it with acts that are designed to fulfill our above-mentioned mission.  When you put a coin in the Tzedakah box – at home; when you pick up the phone or go online - at home - to liven someone’s life up a little and let them know somebody is thinking of them; when you eat healthy, kosher food with a Bracha, or exercise or otherwise take care of yourself – at home - and have in mind that you will be able to be a strong, healthy messenger of Hashem; when you take some time to study Torah or to say nice things to your family or to put on Tefillin or to apologize and make up with someone you may have hurt, this is what it means to “be holy.”  Of course there is a level of holiness that is achieved in a holy synagogue with a community praying together, and of course on Yom Kippur, but holiness is also about who we are and how we define ourselves, and can permeate everything we do.

 

So while we look forward to the time when we can once again do those things that we usually think of as “Holy,” we don’t have to wait.  Life can be full of meaning and yes, holiness, right now. 


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