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Parshat -Vayigash/Hei Tevet

Parshat -Yizkor

Tomorrow evening, we will usher in the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. This is a day of great, deep spiritual joy, since on this day Hashem is close to each of us and forgives our sins.  It is certainly solemn.  We are reviewing our actions and asking for forgiveness, and if we are sincere we are taking it very seriously.  But that should not be confused with sadness. If we do in fact accept responsibility for our lacks and mistakes, Hashem, our loving Creator and Father, is happy and waiting to forgive, and this should bring us a very powerful sense of optimism and joy.

 There is an interesting verse in Tehillim (Psalms) that seems a little difficult to understand. “For You forgive, in order that you be feared.” (Psams 130:4.)  We add this Psalm to our prayers throughout the Ten Days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur.  What does this mean exactly?   It sounds counterintuitive.  If Hashem forgives, there is less reason to fear! There is a beautiful Chassidic interpretation in the holy book Yahel Or, quoting Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement.  He gives an allegory of a poor man who owes a lot of money to someone.  He knows that he will not be able to make the payment. So he approaches the lender and asks him to work with him and come up with easier terms. The lender refuses and demands the full payment on time. What is the borrower to do?  There is no way he can make the full payment, so he just gives up and defaults on the loan. 

Now imagine if the lender is compassionate and agrees to work with the poor borrower.  He forgives a part of the loan, and offers an easy payment plan for the loan to be paid out slowly over time.  In this case, the borrower will go out of his way to meet the new repayment terms.  If at all possible he will accelerate the payments, and perhaps even pay more than was agreed to.  The borrower feels grateful to the lender, and there is a bond of friendship created between them. 

This is what the above verse means. “Fear” does not mean being afraid that Hashem will do something bad to us G-d forbid. It means being in awe of Hashem, feeling His closeness and being afraid to do anything that might affect our relationship with our very source of life.  If Hashem was unforgiving and demanded that we be perfect all the time, then what chance would we mortals have to be connected to Him?  We would just give up and forget about trying to bring Torah and spiritual meaning into our lives.  But, as the verse says, Hashem is forgiving, and therefore we stand in awe of Him. We approach Hashem on Yom Kippur in the knowledge that if we just to do something to relieve our burden, if we commit to increase our observance and to be more aware of our mission and responsibilities, Hashem will accept our “payment plan” and even help us, with spiritual and material assistance, to fulfill our promise.

I think this is an important message that has to be spread, especially to our youth.  So many have the image of a demanding, unforgiving G-d with unrealistic expectations, and they just give up and walk away from any Jewish observance.  We must share this message of hope.  Hashem loves us and wants us to succeed.  He wants to see us successful and happy, and is willing to make it possible for us to return and to connect with Him, step by step.  If we take that first step, we will be accepted and blessed.  May we all be blessed with a “Gmar Chatima Tova” – may we be sealed for a wonderful year, a year of peace, harmony and abundance, and a year of Divine revelation for each of us and for the entire world.

As always, you, along with every Jew, are welcome to join us at Chabad for the services. Please click the link above for your closest Chabad House. 

Parshat - Ha'azinu Shabbat Shuvah

As we approach the Holy Day of Rosh Hashana, the New Year, I wish you a Ketiva Vachatima Tova, may you be inscribed and sealed for a wonderful and sweet year. There is a tremendous amount of material written on the significance of Rosh Hashana and its traditions and customs, and you can find a lot here. We are all busy preparing for the Holiday, so I just want to mention two practical things that are important to remember.

First, there are many things we do on Rosh Hashana, but the most significant is hearing the sound of the Shofar. This is a Biblical Mitzvah, and its spiritual significance is profound, and the subject of many books, writings and Chassidic discourses. If you would pick an observance to mark this Holiday, or if you were to pick half an hour to be in the Synagogue, I would suggest you pick the time of the Shofar blowing. You are of course welcome at Chabad, no tickets or reservations required. You may also want to hang around for an amazing lunch.

The second important thing to remember is the “Eruv Tavshilin.” This is a special ceremony we do at home, and can be found here. In general, while we are permitted to cook on a holiday, we may only do so for the day itself, not for the day after. This is a problem when a holiday occurs on a Friday, when we need to cook and prepare for Shabbat. When the Sages prohibited cooking on a holiday for the next day (this is a Rabbinic, not a Biblical prohibition), they allowed it in this situation, as long as we prepare the Eruv Tavshilin before the holiday. This should be done today before candle lighting.

Once again, I wish you Shana Tova and I look forward to seeing you and to continuing to be in touch over the coming year.

Parshat - Nitzavim-Vayelech

Growing up, I learned about the days of Rosh Hashana, the Ten days of Repentance, Yom Kippur and the month of Elul leading up to them. They are “days of awe,” we learned. What does that mean exactly? As a kid I thought this meant that these are days to be afraid of. I had some teachers who reinforced that, teaching us that Hashem is sitting in judgment on Rosh Hashana, the books of life and death are before Him, and He judges each person to determine what his next year will be like. If we have sinned, I learned, we must do Teshuva, repent, change our ways, cry out to Hashem for forgiveness and resolve to do better next year. There was a palpable fear of the Supreme Judge Who is going to “get you” for all the things you did wrong, and you’d better shape up, or else, Lots and lots of awe!

Then I started listening to the talks of Rabbi Schneerson, our Rebbe. I learned that yes, indeed, most of that is true, but I learned to look at it through a completely different lens. During the month of Elul, our Sages taught, Hashem “shows a smiling face” to each individual. Hashem is not hoping to catch us at something wrong. Hashem reminds us of His unbounding love for every one of His children. Rosh Hashana is coming, the time when the lease on the world is up, and we need to renew it.  Chassidus teaches that Hashem created the world in order for us humans to bring the Divine spirit into all of the material things, and the existence of the world depends on that. On day six of creation Adam, the first man, stood up and gathered all of Creation and announced that Hashem is the ruler of the world, thereby fulfilling the purpose of creation. Hashem then gave the Universe a one year “lease”, and this lease is renewable every Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of Adam’s creation. So every year on Rosh Hashana, Adam’s children do the same. We blow the Shofar and accept Hashem as our ruler. Imagine the privilege that we have, each of us being given the opportunity to express the purpose of creation and to bring Divine life to the world!  Hashem gave us this opportunity because of His love for us. He did not want us to feel like we were given everything without earning it. Human nature is such that we appreciate and enjoy what we earn much more than what is given with no work on our part. This is known as “bread of shame.” So Hashem made us partners in creation, and it is our work to improve the world and follow the lifestyle given in the Torah that keeps the world going.

If we are to be true partners to Hashem, it behooves us to make sure that we are worthy partners. When we think of Hashem’s love for each of us, this awakens a response of deep love in our hearts and minds, to want to live up to Hashem’s trust in us. This also creates a great sense of awe. If Hashem loves us so much and shows so much kindness toward us, should we not be careful not to harm that relationship and allow anything to get in the way? So the overwhelming emotion of Elul and the High Holidays is love, Hashem’s love for us and our love for Him, coupled with a powerful sense of awe, recognizing our awesome opportunity, which brings with it an awesome responsibility. So, as in a human relationship, when we know that someone truly loves us, we do all we can to strengthen the relationship and are fearful of doing anything that might cause distance, our relationship with Hashem in Elul becomes stronger. We look back over the last year and see what we have done to strengthen our love for Hashem, and what we may have done that distances us from Him. We strive to improve ourselves, to fix what needs to be fixed in our relationship, so that on Rosh Hashana we can honestly stand up and proclaim that Hashem is our ruler, our parent, and our beloved source of life. We ask Hashem to see our inner love for Him, and to bless us with another year to continue bringing His Divine light into the world. 

Instead of a depressing, fearful and in a way fatalistic time, this can and should be a greatly uplifting time, a time of spiritual renewal, a time of great hope and optimism. Hashem looks down upon us and smiles to us, encouraging this hope and optimism. And Hashem is happy, in the words of the Psalms, with his creations and blesses us with goodness and sweetness for the New Year.

I invite you to join us at Chabad for Rosh Hashana. Our services are open and friendly, everyone is invited, no tickets or reservations required. You will enjoy the new social hall at Chabad in Palo Alto, or the services at our other locations. No matter where each of us is on the ladder of observance, Hashem is smiling and inviting us to join Him in the re-creation of the world on Rosh Hashana. Come and hear the Shofar and be part of it. Yes, you.

Torah Studies - A Call for Unity

Parshat - Ki Tavo

One of the striking Mitzvot in the Torah is the Mitzvah of Bikkurim – First Fruits, that is taught in this week’s Parsha.  When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, every farmer would bring the first of his produce to the Temple.  As he watched his fruits develop, he would tie a string around the first ones to ripen, and after harvest he would place them in a basket and bring them to Jerusalem.  Our Sages describe the procedure in great detail.  The seven types of produce with which Israel is blessed in the Torah were used, and organized in a certain way, with grapes adorning the edges of the basket.  The people of Jerusalem would come out to greet the farmers, and they would sing songs and celebrate this event together.  There are many levels of significance to this Mitzvah.  Among other things, it is a major statement of faith and gratitude.  If you have ever grown tomatoes or other produce in your garden, think about the feeling you had when you ate that first ripe tomato or orange.  You worked really hard and patiently waited until you could enjoy the fruits of your labor.  You might share the produce with others, but that first one is your own, you worked for it and you earned it and you get to enjoy it.  Giving that first fruit to Hashem is a statement that you recognize that it is not all your work that made it happen, in fact your work was just the channel for Hashem’s blessings, which is the primary cause of the produce growing.  This Mitzvah reminds us that Hashem’s providence is what runs nature, and that whatever we have is a gift that was given to us in order to improve the world.

An interesting detail of this Mitzvah is the basket.  One would think that it goes without saying that the fruits would be put in a basket, how else would you carry it?  I don’t think they had cardboard boxes in those days.  Yet the Torah says “Vesamta Vatenne” – you shall place it in a basket.  Why does the Torah have to command us that?  The truth is that while the typical translation of the word “tenne” is a basket, it is not necessarily a basket in the way we use the word.  It really means a container.  It could be brought in a basket woven from willow twigs, usually done that way by the poor, or it could be a gold or silver container, usually brought by the wealthy.  It seems that the container is an integral part of the Mitzvah.  Another interesting fact about the container is what happened to it after the fruits were brought to the Temple.  The fancy containers were given back to the owners, but the simple woven baskets were an integral part of the gift and kept by the Kohanim.  The Talmud (Bava Kama 92a) says about this practice, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that poverty follows the poor.  Why indeed is the container so important, and why is the simple basket part of the gift and not the fancier ones? 

As always, a deeper explanation to this Mitzvah is given in Chassidus to answer these questions.  The “First Fruit” alludes to the soul of a person, which is called Hashem’s “first produce.”  It comes into the body in order to improve it and the world, and to synthesize the physical and the spiritual, top bring the produce of the world to Hashem.  The soul is interested in spirituality and would rather spend its time studying Torah than busying itself with material pursuits.  The Torah tells us that the “First Fruit” must be put in a container.  The way to fulfill its mission is for the soul to engage the physical and to observe practical, physical Mitzvot.  This way the soul is contained within the world and making a difference here.  However, only the simple baskets made of simple twigs remain part of the offering.  This teaches us that it is specifically the “lowly” day-to-day seemingly mundane activities, such as dealing honestly in business, helping a friend or neighbor, giving Tzedakah, eating food that is kosher, or other seemingly simple acts that truly affect the world. 

I wish you a Ketiva Vachatima Tova, a good and a sweet NewYear.  This is the time to be thinking about your needs for the holidays.  If you have any questions, please feel free to email or call me.  If you would like to order “four species” set, you can now do it online at or by phone at the office.  If you are looking for a great place to be uplifted for the High Holiday services without having to buy a ticket, Chabad is here for you.  Please do not hesitate to call on us if there is any way we can be of service to you.

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