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Parshat -Vayigash/Hei Tevet

Parshat - Beha'alotecha

When we think of the 40 years that the Jewish people spent in the desert from the time they left Egypt until the time they arrived in Israel, most people I know define this time as a time of strife, complaining and disrespect. In the Biblical stories, we see the various problems that came up – the Golden Calf, the complaining about lack of water and food, the request for meat, the rebellion of Korach, and of course the story of the spies that caused them to be stuck there for 40 years in the first place. In fact, the Torah says that the people tested Hashem ten times. But the truth is that rather than framing their entire experience in the desert as negative, there is another whole story that is also written in the Torah that we don’t often focus on.

One of the stories told in this week’s Parsha, Beha’alotcha, is the way the decision was made to camp in a certain place and how long to stay there before the next journey. There was no council of elders deciding this, nor was it the decision of the leadership or a consensus of the people. The Torah tells us of a cloud that rested above the Mishkan (Sanctuary), and when the cloud would lift, the people would pack up and travel in the direction that the cloud led them. When the cloud settled, they would camp. Imagine what it took to set up camp. 600,000 families had to set up their tents and unpack. The Levi’im (Levites) would set the Mishkan up. Huge beams, long poles, hundreds of feet of cloth, goats’ hair and leather roof coverings, curtains, hundreds of feet of screens and pegs for the courtyard, furniture, all the utensils and all the many items necessary for the sacrifices. 

When you go on vacation, how much unpacking do you do? I would imagine that it depends on how long you are staying in the same place. If you are going to spend a while in the same hotel or on a cruise, you unpack everything from the suitcases. If you are just spending a night at a motel on your way, you might just take out whatever you need for the night. Well, all of the unpacking and setting up camp that the Jews did in the desert, including the huge job of setting up the Mishkan, was done without knowing how long they would be staying. As the Torah describes, sometimes it would be only for a long time, and sometimes as short as day and a night! Yet the Jews followed the instructions from Hashem without complaining and, in good faith, set up the camp when shown by the cloud and took it down again whenever the time came.

Another major expression of faith was that they would go to bed every night with no food to eat, knowing that the next morning when they woke up there would be Mann – the heavenly bread that fell each morning – for them to eat. Here again, 600,000 families in the desert going to bed every night without a scrap of food to eat, none of them going to the neighboring countries to find provisions, simply trusting that Hashem would provide for them.

This was a powerful lesson for the people after they had questioned their ability to follow Hashem’s instructions to capture the land. They now experienced the direct involvement that Hashem had in their lives, going where He led them and eating what He directly provided for them. This foundation of faith was a lesson for all times. When we live in a home and eat food that we grow, we often forget about Hashem’s involvement in providing for us. The Torah teaches us that although we may not see it with our physical eyes, in fact where we end up is Hashem’s decision and what we eat is provided by His blessing. We have the choice to live with this faith or not, and we have the choice to do whatever we want when we get to wherever we are. But recognizing this lesson, we are more open to recognizing that Hashem is bringing us to a place for a mission, and our life fulfillment comes from fulfilling that mission, as directed in the Torah.

Parshat - Nasso

First of all, I wish a hearty Mazal Tov to my son and daughter in law, Rabbi Zalman and Devory, on the birth of their son on Tuesday. The Bris will be, with Hashem’s help, on Tuesday morning at 8 at the Chabad Center of Palo Alto. A Bris is a unique event, celebrating the essential bond that Hashem made with the Jewish people, beginning with the covenant with our forefather Abraham. We don’t wait until the boy is old enough to make a rational decision about the Bris, because our bond with Hashem is beyond rationale and is unconditional. Regardless of how a Jew lives, his or her bond with Hashem can never be broken. (While girls are obviously not circumcised, G-d forbid, the Talmud tells us that this does not mean that they are left out of the covenant. Rather they carry the covenant automatically, without the need for human intervention.)

Our tradition tells us that Elijah the Prophet comes to every Bris, and that there is a spiritual light that surrounds the parents on this day. Throughout the ages we have steadfastly kept this Mitzvah, even under threat of death by our enemies, who have from time to time outlawed the practice. My own grandfather was a Mohel in the Soviet Union, and was ultimately murdered by Stalin’s regime for “counterrevolutionary activities.” 

An interesting fact about a Bris is that it is customary not to explicitly invite people. The reason for this is that the Bris is such a holy event that one cannot turn down the invitation. In order not to create pressure for someone who can’t make it, we only notify them of the event, and the notification implies an invitation. 

The Mitzvah is for the Bris to be done on the eighth day. The mystical reason for that is that the number eight represents that which is above nature, as is the Bris, as I mentioned above. Seven represents the seven days of the week - the limits of time. Seven is also the number of Divine attributes with which the world was created, and the corresponding seven emotions of a human being. (This is all discussed at length in Chassidus and Kabbalah.) Eight, the number above seven, therefore represents that which is above nature. The first time the presence of Hashem was revealed in the desert sanctuary after the Torah was given was on the eighth day after its construction, and we find this theme in other areas of spiritual life. 

Modern science has identified a scientific reason for the Bris on the eighth day. It turns out that Vitamin-K is a necessary component in blood clotting. The levels of Vitamin-K grow for the first days of life, and peak on the eighth day. On that day the Vitamin-K level is the highest it ever gets in a lifetime. Of course we do it on that day because of our tradition of following the Torah, but it is nice to see another example of how modern science is slowly catching up to what the Torah has taught for thousands of years. I’m looking forward to celebrating this great event on Tuesday together with our friends and community members.

Parshat - Bemidbar Shavuot


We are about to celebrate a great, joyous and uplifting three-day weekend. Shabbat is immediately followed by the Holiday of Shavuot, the celebration of the Giving of the Torah. We take time off work, we pray and sing praises to Hashem, we relax, eat festive meals including cheese-cake and meat (not in the same meal, of course), and spend at least one night in Torah study. The traditional blessing for this Holiday is: May you receive the Torah with joy and internalize it. The day of Shavuot is referred to in the Torah as “the wedding day” between Hashem and the Jewish people, so it is a day of great joy. In fact, it is one of the few days on the calendar when we are not allowed to fast under any circumstances.

Let’s stop to think about this for a moment. What exactly are we celebrating? What is the Torah? Most people associate the Torah with a set of rules, 613 Mitzvot to be exact, plus seven Rabbinic laws, each of these containing untold numbers of details. To follow the Torah means to be restricted from many things that the rest of the world does every day, and to be obedient to Hashem in a way that impacts every aspect of our lives. If we had not received the Torah, would our lives not have been much easier? We would not have this “yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” and all the restrictions that it implies. So what are we so happy about?

Think about a wedding. It is the happiest day in the couple’s life, and the celebration is like no other. Many guests come and dance and celebrate with the bride and groom, with lavish food and drink and musicians, flowers and so much more. What exactly are they celebrating? Until now they have each been free to live as they wish. They could go where they wanted, when they wanted. They could eat whatever and whenever they felt like it, dress as they wish, travel anytime to anywhere without having to consult with a partner. Now after the wedding, they will be restricted in all those areas and more. Everything they do, they will have to consider how it impacts their spouse and then their kids. So what are they so happy about?

The answer, of course, is that they are creating a relationship, a bond that will bring true satisfaction to their lives. To love and to be loved, to share ups and downs, and to create new life that will continue the chain of humanity into the next generation. All of these “restrictions” are actually bringing new meaning to life. While it is true that they will be facing a much more controlled existence, at the wedding we all celebrate the relationship and the value it brings to the couple, their future family and their loved ones. We recognize that the restrictions are in fact the springboard for a truly meaningful life.

That is Shavuot. Hashem created this world as a place where He is concealed. Without the concealment, we would not have free choice. As stated in Kabbalah and Chassidus, it was necessary for Hashem to hide His light in order to allow for the limits and division that define our material world. Hashem could have left it at that and never allowed us, finite physical humans, to connect to the infinite. Instead Hashem chose to have a relationship with us and allow us to have a relationship with Him. What greater joy can there be than that of knowing that we have the ability to break through the concealment and bond with the source of all life. Yes, we are restricted in what we do and how we live, but that all brings true meaning to our lives. This is the greatness of the Giving of the Torah, the day that we are given the opportunity to have a direct relationship with our Creator. Each Mitzvah that we do and each forbidden act we refrain from doing, strengthens that relationship and lifts us out of our limited selves and connects us to the infinite. Now that is something to celebrate!

I invite you to enhance your Shavuot experience by joining us for the many celebrations that we offer at Chabad. May you receive the Torah with great joy, and internalize it.

Parshat - Behar-Behukotai

Israel needs our help.  If someone told you that you have the ability to do something that will enhance the security of our brothers and sisters in Israel, what would you say?  I believe that you would jump at the opportunity.  What if I told you that it can take as little as a couple of minutes?  How much more so!  And what if I told you that it will cost you nothing, you don’t have to travel, and if you don’t know how to do it there is someone nearby willing and eager to help you?  How could anyone refuse such an offer!  The only catch is that it takes a little faith.  Not faith in some new idea that someone has come up with, but faith in a 3,300-year-old tradition that has been part of our core belief through all the generations. 

So what is this little thing that I can do to help the beleaguered people of Israel who are facing fire raining down from the sky, G-d forbid? The Talmud quotes the verse (Devarim 28:10): “[They] will see that the name of Hashem is… upon you and they will fear you,” and adds (Berachot 6a): “These are the Tefillin that go on the head.” We have always recognized that in addition to our need to take steps to protect ourselves, like strengthening the heroic forces of the IDF, we have the spiritual protection of Hashem who has sworn to not allow the Jewish people to be destroyed. This is what we say in the Haggadah ion the well-known song “Vehi She’amda,” that this promise has stood by us through all the generations of persecution and attempts to wipe us out.  

So while our prayers and best wishes go out to the people of Israel, and especially the soldiers who risk their lives to protect the people and the land, we can each do something about it. It takes two minutes to put on Tefillin. If you have them at home, please try to do it as often as possible. If you don’t have Tefillin or don’t know how to do it, please contact me or any Chabad rabbi and we will be happy to help you with it. This is a way to make a real difference.

While Tefillin is a Mitzvah specifically for men, there is a special Mitzvah for women too that brings Hashem’s protection to our people and that is the Mitzvah of Shabbat candles. Our sages have taught that when a woman lights the Shabbat candles (at the right time, before sunset), the holy light brings peace to the home. Since what each of us does impacts the entire Jewish people, this peace extends beyond the individual home to encompass all of our people, including those in Israel.

There was once, in a Russian town, a serious threat to the Jewish people. The community met to discuss what to do about it. One of the people said: We can’t just rely on miracles, we have to do something practical, so let’s pray. To us, the power of a Mitzvah is not just a mystical idea, but is something practical that we have recognized through the ages as truly bringing us blessings and protection. So let’s all do something. Do a Mitzvah and pray to Hashem that He protect all our people and help overcome the enemies today, just as He helped us overcome the ancient Persian tyrant Haman.

Parshat - Emor


Today, Thursday is Lag Ba’Omer. The day is so named because it is the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, the daily count that stretches for 45 days, from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot. The Hebrew letters for 33 are lamed (30) and gimel (3), which spell Lag. On this day, one of the greatest sages of all time, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away. It is very interesting that while the anniversary of a person’s passing is generally a sad day, this day is referred to as “hillula deRashbi – the “wedding celebration” of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The term “hillula,” is also used to describe the anniversary of passing of other truly righteous people - Tzadikim.  How does a day like this get named for a wedding? There is a beautiful explanation given by the Rebbe, and you can watch it here. You can read more about this particular day, Lag Baomer, here.  

Lag Baomer is a day of great celebration, especially for children. It is customary for the kids to go on a field trip to open space, and in many communities this day is marked with a “Parade of Jewish Pride.” You can see several videos of the “Great parade” held in New York here. There is so much good information on Lag Baomer in these sources, that anything I can write seems shallow in comparison, so I am providing the resources rather than writing myself today. 

I hope you will join us for the wonderful family Lag Baomer celebrations at Chabad today, and may the great spiritual light of this day inspire us all to reach higher toward our inner spiritual essence, to connect to our true purpose and mission, and to reveal the ultimate purpose of all of creation.

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