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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Lag B'Omer

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pesach Sheni

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

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

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

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

Kedoshim

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

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

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

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

Pesach

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Pekudei

 

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

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

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

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

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

Vayakhel

 

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

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

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

Va'eria


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vayechi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parshat Vayigash/Hei Tevet

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Parshat - Chukat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parshat - Shelach

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

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

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

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

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

Parshat - Beha'alotecha

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

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

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

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

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

Parshat - Nasso

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

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

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

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

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

Parshat - Bemidbar Shavuot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parshat - Behar-Behukotai

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

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

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

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

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

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