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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat - Purim

Happy Purim! Purim is not a time to read long megillas (except the real one), so I just want to briefly review the special observances that we do on Purim. After the great miracle when all the Jews were saved from a real and seemingly unstoppable threat of annihilation, our sages instituted the day of Purim to celebrate, remember and take lessons in our own lives from the events that happened then.

In order to remember the story, there is an obligation for every man and woman to hear the megilla read in the original Hebrew both on the eve of Purim (Wednesday), and during the day (Thursday). We offer several readings at Chabad.

We celebrate with a festive feast on the day of Purim, Thursday, usually toward evening. Chabad offers great opportunities to really enjoy this event.

In order to counteract Haman’s accusation that the Jews are “spread out and divided,” there are two special Mitzvot that we observe on this day (Thursday).  These are both very easy Mitzvot to fulfill, and also perhaps the most important, since they promote Jewish unity.  One is Mishloach manot, which is to give at least two kinds of readily edible food and/or drink to at least one friend. Customarily we give to at least three people. 

The other is to give gifts of money to at least two poor Jewish people. If you don’t personally know any poor people, you can give it to a fund that distributes the money, ideally on the day of Purim itself. I have a special fund for this purpose. I distribute 100% of the money I receive directly to several needy people on Purim, and it does not go through our regular budgeting process. Please call the office 650-424-9800 if you would like to contribute to this fund.

There is also a special Torah reading for Purim, and the addition of the “al hanissim” prayer in the services and Bentching (blessing after the meal).

Happy Purim! I hope you will join us! 

Parshat - Adar Terumah

Its two weeks before Purim, the first day of Rosh Chodesh (beginning-of-the-month of) Adar.  The month of Adar is a happy one.  The Talmud says that when Adar comes in we should increase our joy.  This joy goes back to the great miracle of Purim when Haman’s (and his cohorts’) decree to wipe out all the Jews was completely overturned, and the Jews were able instead to annihilate their enemies, which they did.  Not because they wanted to fight, but because they knew they had no alternative and needed to protect themselves.  The miracle was so great and the joy so intense that the month became a month of joy for all time.  Actually the joy of the month goes back much farther.  It was on the seventh of this month that Moshe was born, and in fact our Sages taught that this played a role in the redemption.  Haman, who understood mysticism, knew that Moshe died on the seventh of Adar, and therefore felt that the Jewish “mazal” – spiritual strength – would be weaker during this month, but he didn’t realize that Moshe was also born on that day, and therefore the mazal is stronger.  All of this shows us that there are higher forces at play than what we know and see, and this also helps us, perhaps, answer a question that many ask:  How can you tell me to be happy?  Psychologists say that when people who are unhappy are told to be happy, it makes them even more unhappy, even inducing guilt feelings.  I’m supposed to be happy, why am I so sad? 

Setting aside clinical depression, which is a medical illness and should be treated as such, the key to happiness is attitude.  I’m not going to presume to be able to provide the key to happiness in one paragraph, and it is certainly a very complicated matter that is different for each person, but it is safe to say that attitude is the most important factor in happiness.  If I look at the world in one dimension, All I see is what is in front of my eyes and all I hear is what enters my ears.  I have no context for what is happening except what I experience on the physical plane.  Then what I experience as bad is bad, what’s frightening frightens me, what seems unfair hurts me, and when things are not going exactly the way I planned, I get upset.  If, however, I realize that what I see is only a tiny part of reality, that there is a loving, benevolent Creator Who runs things and there is a purpose to everything, then what is bad must have a positive purpose, what is frightening need not frighten me because I put my trust in Hashem, and what seems subjectively to me to be unfair may actually be exactly the fairest thing to happen to me, for a benefit and purpose that I may not see or experience in my immediate material surroundings.

When we remember that the most powerful man in Achashverosh’s government was not able to follow through on his plan, because Hashem protected us, we realize that what happens is not in the control of any individual, regardless of how strong or capable.  (This does not include our personal decisions to act well or not, for that we have free choice.)  If we can give up our illusion of control of our circumstances and put our trust in Hashem that he does what is best for us and cares about us, we let go of fear, anger and sadness and can be truly happy even in the face of adversity.

This is also the theme of this week’s Parsha, Terumah, where Hashem tells Moshe to tell the people to “make for me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell within them.  As our sages interpret this verse, each of us should make ourselves and our homes a sanctuary for Hashem, and He will dwell within each of us.  When we recognize that everything we have or touch can be used for a higher purpose, this can bring us great joy, pulling us out of our little bubble and connecting us to something eternal.

Parshat - Shevat Mishpatim Shekalim

 “If you see your enemy’s donkey crouching under its load, [don't think] you may refrain from helping him, you shall surely help him.”  This is a positive mitzvah in our Parsha. Why your enemy’s donkey?  What about your friends. Of course it does not mean exclusively your enemy’s. In addition to the basic meaning that it applies even to your enemy, the Halacha is that if you see two people whose animals are crouching under their load, and one is your enemy, you are obligated to help the enemy first. Rambam explains that this is in order to curb our evil inclination and overcome our feelings of animosity.

Now we must clarify that the Torah is not discussing an enemy who want to destroy us or an anti-Semite. It is talking about a member of the community whom we hate. In general we are not allowed to hate a fellow Jew. There are exceptions, for example a person on the same spiritual level who has wantonly committed an egregious sin and even after being reminded and corrected several times, he continues to transgress. Under those circumstances it is ok to hate that person.

Nevertheless the Torah tells us that we must help him unload his overloaded animal, and to choose to help him over another person.  Because the hatred may not be for the person, it is for the action. If we harbor negative feelings toward another, that is something that we need to fix, because the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael applies to everyone without exception. One of the ways the Torah teaches us this is by requiring us to help that person. We do it because Hashem commended it, and we remember that whatever personal feelings we may have, the true essence of a person is the soul, and on that level we are all one.

Parshat - Shevat Yitro

The Jews were in the desert.  They had just received the Torah.  Moshe had brought down the Tablets, broken them and brought a second set of Tablets.  Now it was time to settle down and teach the people the Torah in depth.  In addition to learning the laws of the Torah, there were disputes that had to be settled.  The Torah contains rules and guidance not only for ritual laws like Shabbat, kosher and blessings, etc., but also a complete set of rules of conduct in business and day-to-day life.  If a dispute arises between people, the Torah tells us how it should be handled.  So now that Moshe returned to be with the people, he immediately begins to teach them Torah, and to adjudicate the business issues that have arisen.  Moshe’s father in law is concerned.  He tells Moshe that he will not be able to handle this.  “You will wither away, you and all the people.”  It’s too much for one person to handle this great load.  So he suggests that Moshe delegate the work to judges, and advises a structure of lower courts and higher courts.  Moshe consults with Hashem and agrees to do it.   

This week’s Parsha is named “Yitro”, after Moshe’s father in law.  The translation of the name means “addition”, and our sages taught that he was given this name (he had eight names) because he added a Parsha in the Torah – the one we just discussed.  So there are two questions here:  what was Moshe thinking?  He obviously felt that it was Hashem’s will for him to personally deal with all the Torah questions, including those pertaining to people’s personal lives, but how would he be able to hold up?  On the other hand, Yitro was obviously correct, and in fact is considered the one who “added a Parsha” to the Torah, meaning it was Hashem’s will and became part of Torah.  So why was Yitro the one who figured it out and not Moshe? 

Chassidus gives a beautiful answer, and I will just briefly give a short synopsis.  Moshe knew that nobody would be able to transmit the Torah, including the judgments between people, like he could.  He was the one who heard the Torah directly first hand from Hashem, and anyone else would be teaching it second hand.  Because of who he was and the power of his personal involvement, he knew that Hashem would protect him and give him the strength needed to overcome any physical challenges and not let him wither.  It was in fact true that when the people were in Moshe’s presence, they were elevated to a higher level, and the impact of Moshe’s words was greater than any other person could have had. 

However, Yitro saw another side of the people.  He saw them when they were not in front of Moshe, and he understood that Moshe’s influence would not necessarily last when they were not in his presence, because their level of holiness was not the same.  So Yitro suggested to Moshe that he create a system of judges that would be closer to the people’s level, who would inspire the people in their day-to-day activities and their interpersonal dealings.  This way, he felt, Moshe’s influence would be more permanent, because the Torah would permeate the people on their own level, rather than them being overwhelmed by Moshe’s presence, a feeling that was unsustainable.  Hashem agreed, because that was the way to ensure the continuity of Torah and its observance in all situations.

So Yitro added a Parsha in the Torah, meaning that he brought Torah to an additional level of observance.  Moshe inspired the people, and Yitro showed how to ensure that the inspiration would continue without his presence.  I think there are two lessons here.  First, that we should look to our great leaders for inspiration and try to connect to them in order to elevate ourselves from the mundane and touch something higher.  Second, that Hashem wants us to stand on our own two feet, to get to the point where our connection to Hashem expresses who we are on our level, not just as an external inspiration. 


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