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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat - Shevat Beshalach

This week we read the story of the Splitting of the Sea.  As in all the stories in the Torah, there are many details that are only discussed in the Oral Torah.  In fact, the written Torah contains a tiny fraction of the story, with many hints and allusions to the vast oral tradition.  An example of this is the story in the Talmud of Nachshon ben Aminadav, the head of the tribe of Judah.  The Jews were trapped with the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind them and nowhere to go.  Moshe prayed to Hashem, and Hashem says: don’t shout to me, tell the people to journey.  When Nachshon heard this, he took it literally and started walking into the water.  When he was in up to his neck, the sea split and the Jews went into the dry seabed.  This courageous act of Nachshon Ben Aminadav, the willingness to follow Hashem’s commands without any regard to the natural obstacles being faced, has provided inspiration for Jews in all generations to disregard all dangers that may stand in the way of our adherence to Torah and Hashem’s Mitzvot.

Tonight and tomorrow, (Thursday night and Friday) is the tenth of Shevat, a day connected to two giants in Jewish leadership who personified Nachshon’s ideal.  The Soviet Union tried to crush any trace of Jewish life, and there seemed to be no way to keep Judaism alive.  Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneerson, whose Yartzeit (anniversary of passing) is on the tenth of Shevat, was the one Jewish leader who stood up against the regime, against all odds, creating underground schools, synagogues, Mikvahs and other Jewish life events.  He risked his own life and that of his followers, but when we read the stories of his life we see that it wasn’t that he was taking a calculated risk.  Just like Nachshon, when Hashem gave a command the Rebbe saw no other way.  And today the Soviet Union is no more and Judaism is flourishing.  

His son-in-law Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson accepted the leadership of the Chabad movement on the Tenth of Shevat 1951, a year after his father-in-law’s passing.  He faced a broken post-Holocaust Jewry throughout the world, accompanied by devastating assimilation, especially in the United States.  His “Nachshonian” approach, to drive forward in the pursuit of strengthening Judaism and Jewish identity regardless of any challenges or difficulty transformed the face of global Jewry. 

You and I may not be Nachshons, and we may not be faced with such great earth-shaking decisions, but each of us can learn from these leaders and try to emulate them in a small way in our own lives.  When faced with challenges, we can start calculating the risks and benefits of this decision or that one, or we can drive forward and do the right thing, as prescribed in the Torah.  As difficult as that may be, ultimately that is the way to “split the sea,” to remove the obstacles and to move toward Sinai and connection to Hashem.

Parshat - Shevat, Bo

The Jewish people left Egypt.  This is the main theme of this week’s Parsha.  We read first about the lead up to that great event – the last three plagues, asking the Egyptian neighbors for their possessions and thereby emptying Egypt of its wealth, the Pesach lamb sacrifice, and then the Exodus.  About three million people ventured into the desert, and what did they take along to eat?  A little matzah.  Whenever my kids or guests are traveling, I urge them to take food along.  Even if it is a short trip, I insist on it.  Maybe it’s my PTSD from the time many years ago when I was returning from NY with a toddler on the now defunct Eastern Airlines.  We were taking a late evening flight, had eaten dinner and would arrive late at night, so no need for food.  My mother in law made a few sandwiches and stuck them into my bag.  It turned out that the plane had some malfunction, so the now defunct Eastern sent us from JFK airport to LaGuardia, then back to JFK, and to cut a very long and morbid story short we finally took off six hours late.  Those sandwiches saved us, especially the little girl.  One of the reasons it is so important for us to take food is because when you keep kosher there is usually no food available in the usual places where people on trips buy food.  Now imagine three million people going into an arid desert with no food or water, just a little matzah!  Besides the fact that the dough didn’t rise, what’s remarkable is that there was no effort to pack up large provisions of food!

This incredible faith the Jewish people had in Hashem is part of a prophecy of Jeremiah (2:2) that we quote in the Rosh Hashana liturgy.  Hashem tells Jeremiah to tell the people:  I remember the kindness of your youth, your early love, when you followed me into the desert, a land that is not sown.  This was the faith that the Jewish people had when they left Egypt, and it was rewarded with food (Manna) falling from heaven every morning for close to 40 years, and a miraculous well that provided as much water as they needed for drinking, bathing and Mikvah use.

The Torah teaches us that this faith in fact is how we should continue to live.  Although Manna doesn’t fall from heaven nowadays, it is still Hashem who provides our food and sustenance.  The difference is that now we have to work in order to create the channel for the blessing.  So there are two parts to financial success.  The work that we do, which is the channel for the blessing, and the blessing from Hashem that fills the channel.  I know that it is not easy to live this way, and the natural world appears to work differently, but we do see that different people may work equally hard and have similar ideas, yet one is blessed with great wealth and the other struggles.  This is especially evident in Silicon Valley.  Of course we can always explain it in natural terms, but it behooves us to open our eyes to the Divine Providence that guides us every day.

So if it is Hashem’s blessing that is the source of our livelihood, we need to be sure that the channel we create, our jobs or businesses, are worthy of the blessing.  We must refrain from following any dishonest practices, and make sure all our activities follow the Torah’s ethical, legal and moral guidelines.  Hashem has told us to work for six days and rest on the seventh.  We don’t need to “help Him out” by working on Shabbat, in fact in the big picture that hurts our potential for success.  We should take the time to pray and study, to care for others and especially our families.  We should give at least ten percent of our income to Jewish Tzedakah causes, which in itself brings great blessings.  We should use our work and its proceeds as tools to bring meaning to our lives and to the world.  And if we are tempted to do otherwise because we think we can’t make a living without following “the way of the world,”  we remember the faith of our forefathers and Hashem’s promise to continue to sustain us if we follow Him with faith.  There is a lot to add to this and certainly there are many questions, perhaps I will revisit the subject with some more details in the near future.

Parshat - Tevet Vaera

Today, the 24th of  the Hebrew month of Tevet, we mark the passing of one of the greatest Jewish leaders of all time, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement.  The Alter Rebbe (literally translated as the Old Rebbe, but meaning the first of the dynasty), as he was known, passed away in the year 1812.  What was unique about Rabbi Shneur Zalman is how he was able to bring together the esoteric teachings of the Torah and the “revealed” or Talmudic and halachic (legal) teachings.  For millennia the mystical teachings of Torah were hidden and available to a few chosen saintly scholars.  Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, began teaching it to the masses, and these teachings became known as Chassidus.  The study of Chassidus, however, was very different from Talmudic study.  The study of Talmud is intensely analytical, with questions and answers and often heated debate, and “splitting hairs” to get at the truth of the law.  Chassidus, on the other hand, was originally taught in relatively brief esoteric lessons, understood and accepted mostly on a faith, as opposed to intellectual level.  The Alter Rebbe, with his brilliant scholarship and saintliness, was able to create a method that allowed us to study Chassidus with the same kind of intellectual analysis and deep understanding as the Talmud.  He therefore called it “Chabad”, the Hebrew letters of which, chet, bet, daled, stand for wisdom, understanding and knowledge.  By bringing our inbred faith in Hashem into the mind, he taught, we are able to use the mind to control our emotions, and therefore every person, regardless of level of scholarship, can have a lasting and meaningful relationship with Hashem.

These teachings were written in several major works, the most famous of which is the book of Tanya.  This work brought a complete shift in the way people looked at Chassidus, and has revolutionized the way we understand our relationship with Hashem, the meaning and significance of Mitzvot, how we overcome challenges in our lives, and even how we study Talmud and Jewish law.  Because of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s outstanding brilliance in Talmud and Jewish law, he compiled a version of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) that also revolutionized the way we study Halacha.  Previously, the choices were to study lengthy texts with the reasoning behind all the laws, or abbreviated texts that contained only the laws themselves without any reasons given.  The Alter Rebbe found a way to give us the best of both worlds: Clear halachic rulings with concise explanations of the reasons.  His writing is often referred to as “golden language” because of the way it reads, completely accessible to anyone yet containing the background of the laws, each of which is otherwise contained in pages of text. 

A person’s Jewish name, we are taught in Torah, describes a person’s soul.  Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s name is consistent with his contribution in both areas of Torah, the Talmudic/legal and Chassidus.  The name, Shneur can be written in two words as “Shnei Or”, meaning two lights, referring to the lights of Talmud and Chassidus.  In addition to his work in these two areas, the Alter Rebbe also compiled a unique version of the siddur - prayer book.  In addition to cleaning up many mistakes that had crept in to hand written copies of the prayer books over the centuries, he incorporated the Kabbalistic teachings of the Arizal into the text and the customs written in the siddur.  Please read here for a lot more information on this revolutionary accomplishment.

On this day, it is customary to study some of the Alter Rebbe’s writings in Chassidus and Halacha, to give some extra Tzedakah, and to try to find ways to connect with his legacy in a meaningful and practical way.  One practical suggestion I have is to join my Sunday Tanya class, given (almost) weekly at my house.  Let me know if you would like more information.

Parshat - Tevet Shemot

This week we read about the Jewish exile in Egypt. In last week’s Parsha we read about their arrival, next week we will read about the beginning of the plagues and the lightening of the oppression, but this week is all about the oppression, murder and torture that the Egyptians inflicted on the Jews. I’m sure you know the famous story of the Burning Bush, where Hashem appears to Moshe and tells him that the time of the redemption has arrived, and that Moshe is to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the people go. What is especially fascinating to me today is what Hashem chooses to tell Moshe at this initial revelation. After telling him that Pharaoh will initially not listen, and that He will bring signs and wonders to force him to let them go, Hashem says: “When they leave, they will not leave empty handed.” They will ask their neighbors to give (or lend) them their gold and silver and they will empty out the wealth of Egypt. It is telling that this was part of Hashem’s first charge to Moshe, even though it happened about a year later, implying that  it carries a lot of importance as part of Moshe’s mission. One wonders why that specific issue had to be discussed now, in the face of the horrible suffering that the Jews were dealing with every day.

One explanation is related to a story told in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a). When Alexander the Great came to Israel, a group of Egyptian farmers sued the Jewish community before him. They claimed that the Jews owed them a huge treasure, since they had taken all the Egyptian wealth with them when they left Egypt. Alexander asked the Jews to respond, and a man by the name of Geviha ben Pesisa volunteered to speak on their behalf. He said to the Egyptians: How do you know that this happened?  They answered that it was written in the Torah. Geviha responded: “Well, it also says in the Torah that the Jews were in Egypt for 430 years [and they were enslaved without pay]. Pay us for 600,000 people working for 430 years. When Alexander asked the Egyptians for their response, they requested three days. During that time, they all escaped, leaving their fields with ripe grain. It was a Sabbatical year when Jews are not allowed to sow their fields, so this standing grain was a huge bounty for the community.

With this story we can begin to understand what Hashem was telling Moshe when, at the very first time He sent him, He told him that the Jews would request the Egyptian wealth and receive it. A slave feels worthless. He is just serving his master with no expectation of payment, and is happy to get his freedom when it comes. Hashem was sending a message that the Jews were not just ordinary slaves in Egypt and their work was not worthless. They had a spiritual purpose there, as Kabbalah and Chassidus explains. In order to prepare the world for receiving the Torah and transforming it to goodness, they needed to “elevate the sparks of holiness” that were buried in Egypt. This also explains why it was so significant that they emptied Egypt of its wealth, but this discussion is beyond the scope of these lines. You can read about the concepts of “sparks” here and here. Suffice it to say that the Jews were accomplishing a great cosmic change with their presence in Egypt. Hashem tells Moshe that the Jews will not slip out of Egypt like ordinary slaves empty-handed. They will be well paid by the Egyptians. Not only that, but they will rightfully ask the Egyptians to pay them, and the Egyptians will agree, showing the great value of their work.

In our own lives, we can take comfort in the knowledge that all out work, including the challenges we face to living a life of goodness, is not empty and meaningless. Every action we do to improve the world and connect to holiness has worth and will ultimately bring great reward, material and spiritual.

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