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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat - Tevet Vayechi

Today, Thursday, is a fast day, the Tenth of Tevet. We fast to commemorate the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem by the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar in the year 425 BCE, or 3336 from Creation. The siege led to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, and the end of Jewish independence. (This day also commemorates other sad events in our history, you can read more here.) Our Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, taught us to look at everything that happens in the world as a positive, loving action from Hashem.  This understanding can completely transform our thinking from worry and depression over all the terrible things that have happened, and that we are afraid might happen, to a recognition that there is a positive purpose for everything. This world view is not just words to make people feel better. It led to a great Jewish revival and the tremendous success of the Chabad movement around the world.  

It is based (at least in part) on a verse from the Song of Songs quoted by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneerson, in a Chassidic discourse, whose opening words are: “I have come to My garden…” (Song of Songs 5:1).  The Midrash explains that these are the words of Hashem, describing this physical world as His garden, the place where His Presence is found more than in all the spiritual worlds.  (The previous Rebbe wrote this discourse in advance of the Tenth of Shevat in 1950 (5710), to be studied on that day, which ended up being the day he passed away.  Every year on the anniversary of the previous Rebbe’s passing, which is also the anniversary of our Rebbe assuming the leadership of the Chabad movement, the Rebbe would discuss this discourse at great length, explaining a different chapter each year.) The Rebbe taught us that this world is a delightful garden where Hashem has pleasure from the work of human beings. In that context, all the challenges and difficulties are part of the delight of the garden. 

Chassidim around the world are starting to study the discourse in preparation for the upcoming Tenth of Shevat celebration a month from now. This is not the forum to elaborate on how that can be, or to explain the discourse. You can study the discourse here. I just want to focus on one point. If the fast today is part of the delightful garden, then we can understand that it is not merely a day to mourn or to be sad about our past history and our losses, but to do what we can to bring about the realization of the positive outcome that the fast, and the events leading up to it, can and should bring.

Very briefly, it is the destruction and exile that are leading toward the future great redemption and Hashem’s permanent revelation in the world. It is our work transforming the darkness and overcoming evil that will bring to the rebuilding of the Temple and true peace in Israel and the entire world. It is by not allowing ourselves to get sucked up in the negativity, and doing what we can, as individuals and as a community, to do acts of goodness and kindness, that we bring about real change in the world. So on a fast day, we do what we can to move beyond the suffering and pain and toward positivity and goodness. Besides reminding us of the sorrow of the day, refraining from eating and drinking lifts us out of the material and helps us focus more on the spiritual.  On this day we say additional prayers, we give more Tzedakah, we try to spend some more time studying Torah, and do what we can to improve the world by reaching out and helping others. 

One of the most important steps to getting out of a rut is to envision a better place and try to get there. So our hunger reminds us that we don’t belong in exile. The world is a beautiful garden, and even if it does not appear to us that way today, we can envision it so, and do everything we can to bring beauty and goodness into it. Our thoughts and actions in that direction will bring to fruition our ability to really see the beauty of the garden. As the prophet Zechariah said, (8:19) there will come a day when this fast day, along with the other days when we mourn the destruction, will turn into days of great rejoicing, when we realize that they were stepping stones to the great euphoric life of the future.

Parshat - Tevet Vayigash

We have spent that last eight days celebrating the great festival of Chanukah. Many Jews around the world have spent the last 24 hours celebrating the release of Sholom Rubashkin from prison, and others have criticized the celebration since, after all, he was convicted of bank fraud. I have had many conversations with people on both sides of the discussion, and I think it is important to address this issue since it is affecting Jews around the world. There are those who are ecstatic that this injustice has been corrected and this man, who is known as truly generous and is perceived as having been handed a way-too-harsh sentence, is now free. There are those who point out that he was convicted of a crime, that he shamed the Jewish people, and that the celebration completely ignores this fact. As someone who tends to think that extremes are generally destructive (with minor exceptions), I look at both sides of this discussion and I think I have a nuanced view on it.

There are three separate issues here the way I see it. First, Rubashkin was convicted of a crime, and I don’t think there are many people who would fault the justice system from meting out a just and fair sentence for that. In fact, had the sentence been just and fair, we would probably not have been discussing this whole issue. The fact that he is indeed a kind and special person should probably be taken into account and mitigate his sentence, as is often the case when a judge is trying to determine what the intent was and how destructive the criminal is to society. Pointing out that he is a special person, that he is truly a kind and generous man, that he has 10 children and that this is his first offense, as well as the nature of the crime, does not mean that we don’t believe he committed a crime. It means that this should all be taken into account on sentencing.

The second issue is the sentence and the reasoning behind it, and this is where, in my opinion, it becomes a Jewish community issue, and the release a reason for global celebration. How is it possible that a person like Sholom Rubashkin, convicted for the first time of a financial crime, was given 27 years in prison?  Does anyone in the world think that is a just and fair sentence?  How can it be that the judge gave a sentence that is two years longer than the prosecution requested?  Is it ok for a judge to collude with the prosecutor and plan the raid against the meat packing plant together?  Is this the way our justice system is supposed to work?  This really doesn’t make any sense, so we need to look for ways to understand it. The way it appears to me and many in the community is that the judge was broad brushing at best, more likely bigoted. Anti-Semitism is a serious charge that we try not to throw around lightly, but probably some of that too. Some have suggested that some of the newcomers to Iowa from New York acted as if they were still in New York and angered the local citizenry, and there is much more to be said about the tensions in that community. If that was taken into account in the sentencing, then that is indeed bigotry, just as it is when people lump together a race or ethnicity for crimes committed by some of that group, or an entire religion for the bad behavior of some of its adherents. This is something that Jews have fought for generations, recognizing the individual rights of each person and the toxic effects of lumping an entire group together. When it hits us Jews, we call it anti-Semitism, and it has been a source of persecution for us for millennia. 

The third issue is how we Jews react to the situation. There are many who focus on the crime and the shame it brings to our people. We are supposed to take a higher moral ground and be an example to the world. When one of us messes up, we all feel ashamed. So they feel that we should not take on the cause of the injustice that was perpetrated against this felon, because the bigots of the world consider this something “The Jews” have done.  So we judge him and throw him under the bus, because he is a bad actor.

Then there is another approach. While we understand that this is not a case of someone innocent being falsely charged, we should stand up for his rights, at least as we stand up for the rights of others convicted of crimes. We should recognize the affront to our people when someone is given a harsh sentence because he is part of a group, especially when that is our group. We should not have a double standard of standing up for the rights of everyone except ourselves. We should stand by our brother who has slipped and done something wrong, and we should fight to root out injustice against a fellow Jew and stand up against bigotry directed at Jews.

So when that injustice is recognized and a man who had no business being in prison so long is released, it is cause for celebration – for his friends (like myself), for his community (like myself), for all Jews (like myself), and for all moral and ethical people around the world (I hope that includes me). So yes, I am celebrating. Mazaltov.

Parshat - Chanukah Miketz

It’s hard to fathom the magnitude of the Chanukah miracle. We read about the “weak, few, righteous, Torah observant scholars” overcoming the “many, mighty, wicked and wanton transgressors.” The images that we conjure up are those of a small, agile and brave band of warriors using guerilla warfare to beat down the larger, more powerful enemy.  In fact, if we study the history, it was not like that at all. There was a family of Kohanim (priests) and a few followers, 14 altogether when they started, who rebelled against the mightiest occupying force in the world. To say the odds were against them is the greatest understatement ever.  You can’t even say that they didn’t stand a chance. It was inconceivable that the rebellion would go anywhere. Yet, by open, revealed miracles, they did overcome the enemy and purify the Holy Temple. And then came the miracles with the oil. First, that they actually found a bottle of undefiled oil, and then that the one day supply lasted for eight days.

There have been other great struggles in our history, including the subsequent revolt against the Romans that led to the destruction of the Holy Temple, the failure at Masada and the revolt of Bar Kochba that ended in the massacre of huge numbers of Jews and the imposition of draconian measures against the Jews. What happened on Chanukah? How could this tiny band of scholars face the entire Greek-Syrian army? Why the great miracle this time? This is one of the issues we discussed in a recent JLI class. There are many facets to the answer and I will discuss just one point. 

The Maccabees did not set out to start an army. The Greeks did not allow Torah observance. They were actually not seeking to destroy “Jewish culture.”Their fight was against the Divinity of Torah, the belief that it is from Hashem, and the Mitzvot that have no logical explanation, like kosher food and circumcision. They made it impossible for the Jews to follow the Mitzvot, and the Maccabees simply were not willing to accept that. They decided to follow Torah observance at all costs and were ready to sacrifice everything, including fighting the huge enemy with zero odds of winning. This self-sacrifice was rewarded by Hashem with the great miracles of winning the war and seeing the oil burn for eight days. This was not a war for any kind of nationalism or political independence, it was simply an unwillingness to give up on our unique bond with Hashem through the Torah.

This is the ultimate message of Chanukah. It is our Torah heritage that keeps Judaism alive, and in the long run, it our unwavering adherence to Torah that is the secret to our miraculous survival. This message is as important to share today as ever, when we see so many of our youth not recognizing Judaism as an identity, to the extent that unfortunately many are choosing not to circumcise their sons. We need to take the opportunity of Chanukah, the beautiful Festival of Lights, to spread that message to as many of our brothers and sisters as we can. 

Happy Chanukah.

Parshat - Kislev Vayeshev

Today, Thursday, is the 19th of the Jewish month of Kislev. On this day, and the 20th, we celebrate the release of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement, from Czarist prison. The story of his arrest is complicated, and many books, articles and texts have been written discussing the circumstances leading up to the arrest, his time in prison, and his great victorious release. His jailers thought they were dealing with a rebel who was fomenting revolution and treason, and soon realized that this was a huge miscarriage of justice, that in fact this was a holy, saintly man whose entire life was dedicated to spreading holiness and love of one another.

You can read all about it here, and I will not write a lot about the details. Let me just say that a Jewish holiday is not just a celebration of a historic event. It is a time of great spiritual revelation. The Divine revelation that happened at the time of the event that we are celebrating repeats itself every year. The false accusations against Rabbi Schneur Zalman were based on the fact that he was disseminating the esoteric, mystical teachings of the Baal Shem Tov in a way that became intellectually accessible to everyone, from scholar to novice. So the day that he was released with great fanfare and began a new, much greater push to spread these teachings (the reason this day is known as the “Rosh Hashana for Chassidus”) is a day for us to consider how we can follow his path and intensify our connection to them. 

Specifically, this is a day to commit to intensify our Torah study, both the basic studies like Talmud and Halacha and the inner soul of Torah, the Chassidic teaching for which Rabbi Schneur Zalman fought. Ideally, we should try to increase our attendance at public Torah classes. This is also a good time to study the customs and way of life that Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught and try to increase our observance of them. It is customary to attend a “Farbrengen”, Chassidic gathering, on this day and to recount the stories of the arrest and liberation and what the day stands for. Feel free to join us tonight at 7:00 at the Chabad Center in Palo Alto. And as always on an auspicious day, we increase our giving of Tzedakah which creates a physical manifestation of the holiness of the day. 

In the Chassidic tradition, I wish you a “Good Yomtov and a Happy New Year of Chassidus and its path.)

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