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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Pre-Sukkot

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Rosh Hashana & Nitzavim

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Ki Tavo

 

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

2% for Kohanim called Terumah

10% for the Levites called Maaser

10% was allocated separately

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Ki Teitzei

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Shoftim

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Re'eh, Elul

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Re'eh, Elul

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Eikev

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

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

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


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


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


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


Vaetchanan


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Devarim

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Matot-Masei

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Pinchas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Balak

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chukat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naso

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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