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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat -Vayigash/Hei Tevet

A 100 degree Yom Kippur

The weather forecast for Yom Kippur is very hot, close to 100 degrees. It is still not safe to congregate indoors and it looks like outdoors may also not be safe.  The main Mitzvah of the day is to fast, and being outside in the heat without water might be dangerous. It might be best to stay in an air conditioned house.  

We have moved our services up to 7:30 a.m. to beat the heat, but still this might not work for everybody. It would seem as if Yom Kippur will therefore not really happen this year for many people.  We associate Yom Kippur with attending services in the synagogue, the beautiful liturgy, the rousing melodies, and the annual social connection.  How are we going to find meaning in Yom Kippur this year?

The truth is that all of the above, while very important, are not the essence of Yom Kippur.  The Talmud says “the essence of the day atones”.  Yom Kippur is Hashem’s gift of atonement to us. It is a day when the divine light which is generally above all the creation manifests in the world.  The power of this light is so intense that it erases sin, and gives us an opportunity for a fresh start.  Yes, the atmosphere of the synagogue and the inspiration of the community prayers help lift us to a higher spiritual plane, increase our spiritual sensitivity, and connect us to that divine light.  However what is most important on Yom Kippur is to connect our hearts and our souls to Hashem and to resolve to improve the fulfillment of our mission.  Fasting, not wearing leather shoes, and in general staying away from material and physical pursuits allow our souls to soar, and help us remember our true essence.  

On Yom Kippur we move away from all the distractions and temptations that cause us to stray from our life’s purpose.  We reset ourselves and get back onto the path of true self-fulfillment.  From the perspective of our essence, true self-fulfillment can only be achieved when the body and soul are in harmony, and that happens when we are in touch with our soul. This aspect of Yom Kippur can be achieved by anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances.  

We see this concept at the beginning of this week’s Parsha.  Moses called the Heavens and the Earth as witnesses to the people’s observance of the Torah.  The verse states: “Listen Heavens and I will speak, and may the Earth hear the words of my mouth.”  Our Sages discuss the fact that Moses calls on the Heavens first because he was closer to Heaven than to Earth.  

Although none of us can compare ourselves to Moses, we can, nevertheless, learn from him and attempt to emulate him, at least on some level.  It is possible for a human being to get into an elevated spiritual state where he or she feels the spirit more than the body. The spirit, represented by “Heavens”, is the part of Hashem within us that is beyond time and space. On the day of Yom Kippur every single person, regardless of standing, observance, or knowledge, is affected on some level by the spirit of Yom Kippur (in-depth explanation here at 24:50 mins) So wherever you are, you can experience the transformative nature of this holy day.

I encourage you to observe those aspects of Yom Kippur that are not dependent on community. Fasting, not wearing leather shoes (which most of us are doing anyway at home now), and refraining from bathing are a few of those observances.  You can find more information here

I wish you an uplifting and meaningful Yom Kippur.  May you be sealed in the book of life, good health and abundance and may each of us and the entire world merit a year of peace and prosperity, a year of redemption.

It rained yesterday - A simple Rosh Hashana Message


It rained yesterday.  Well, it drizzled.  So what, you ask?  Let’s see.  It doesn’t generally rain in California at this time of year, and there was no rain in the forecast.  There are fires all around us, and the smoke has filled the air for a few weeks.  Last week we had a couple of days with twilight all day, literally.  We were scrambling to figure out how to have services on the holy days of Rosh Hashana.  Can’t do it indoors because of Covid-19, and now we can’t do it outdoors because of smoke.  The air has been extremely unhealthy or hazardous, meaning that you could not be outside, even with a mask, for more than a few minutes.  An index that I just learned about for air quality showed numbers of about 200, very unhealthy.  The forecast was for this to continue until after Rosh Hashana.  Yesterday morning, surprise of surprises!  It rained. And the air quality went to below 10!  Which is really good.  Nobody expected it.  Thank G-d.

So where am I going with all of this?  There are many deep and powerful messages for Rosh Hashana.  Every Rabbi is teaching them, and there are hundreds or thousands on the internet.  I hope you will do some studying over the next day or so to get a deeper understanding of the holiday.  You can start here.  But my message today is a simple message of hope and faith and looking forward to a bright tomorrow.  The Baal Shem Tov taught that the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, when we read in the Torah “Atem Nitzavim Hayom - you are standing upright today,” this alludes to the great day of Rosh Hashana, and this is Hashem’s blessing to us that we will stand upright in judgment.  Meaning we will come out of the judgment with merits and positive blessings.  The Rebbe told us that this blessing does not have to wait until Rosh Hashana, but can begin in Elul even before the new year starts.  Well, here we are.  The new year has not begun yet, and already we are seeing fresh air that nobody expected, in the blink of an eye, when we woke up in the morning expecting to be enveloped in smoke.  

My message for Rosh Hashana is that Hashem is ready to give us goodness and great abundance.  The upcoming year will not be a repeat of last year.  I heard a great acronym for the Hebrew letters of the new year 5781 – Taf Shin Pei Alef.  The Yiddish word for “out” is “aroys” – in German it is “arous.”  Aroys begins with the letter Alef.  So Taf Shin Pei Alef means Taf Shin Pei (last year, 5780) aroys!  Last year with all its challenges and difficulties is behind us.  On Rosh Hashana, we stand before Hashem with faith and hope, praying for Him to give us a wonderful year with only happiness and success in all areas.

The message of Rosh Hashana itself is really all about simplicity.  The sound of the shofar is simple, no words, no fancy music, just the simple cry from the depths of the soul that says:  I am your child, I am your servant, give me the opportunity and the means to fulfill my mission for You.  We say Avinu Malkeinu – our Father our King.  In addition to being our awesome king, Hashem is our loving father.  On this day we are not focusing on the details of our responsibilities or what we have done right or wrong last year.  We are turning to Hashem with a simple cry from the depths of our soul to the essence of Hashem.  We are one with You.  We are bound to You and we ask you to express that bond with us in abundance and blessings.  

Hashem our awesome King but also our loving Father wants this relationship, and like a benevolent king and a loving father, is willing to give, no matter how much we deserve.

See that the blessings have begun to appear in front of our eyes.  Let go of fear and negativity.  Have faith in Hashem, reconnect with Him on a basic, deep soul level, and Hashem will reward that faith and prayer with great goodness.  I urge you to find a shofar blowing (in person, virtual is not appropriate for Rosh Hashana and also does not fulfil the obligation).  Chabad is hosting many outside Chabad Houses and in parks.  As you hear the simple sound of the Shofar, hear your soul reaching out to Hashem.

May Hashem bless you and your loved ones, the entire community, all of Israel and the entire world with a good and sweet New Year, and may we finally see the end of sickness, strife and destruction, with the coming of Mashiach , true peace on earth and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.

What's next?

 What’s next?  I am hearing that question all the time now.  I’m looking out of my window and seeing twilight at 11 am.  Ashes raining down from the sky, weird orange skies and darkness throughout the day.  This is the least of it.  What about the people in the actual path of the fires that are raging around us?  People who have lost their homes, had to evacuate, some barely escaping and others, unfortunately, who didn’t make it.  All of this on top of everything that has happened this year, and the question is what next?


Well, as always, I look to the Torah for guidance.  The Torah is “our life and the length of our days,” and in the Parsha of the week we can always find an answer to how to deal with whatever the current situation is.  I don’t think we know the answer to “why?”  But perhaps we can learn about what to do, what to look forward to and how to keep a positive attitude in the face of all the problems we are facing.


The Parsha this week follows very closely the warnings that Moshe gave the people.  Last week we read 98 curses! Moshe warned what would befall us if we strayed from our mission and broke our unique, miraculous bond with Hashem.  This week we read Moshe’s encouraging words: “You are all standing here today before Hashem, your leaders… and your [simple] wood-choppers water carriers.”  The word used for “standing” is not the typical “Omdim” but “Nitzavim” – also the name of the Parsha – which means standing upright and implies strength and resilience.  Rashi comments that the people were taken aback and turned pale from the curses, so Moshe immediately encouraged them, pointing out that although they had strayed in the past, they were still here.  He used the word “today,” Rashi says, to point out that just as the day gets dark and light, so too Hashem will illuminate our darkness.  The warnings and punishments are, in fact, designed to keep us going, and it is only because of Hashem’s love and caring for us, and His commitment to never give up on us, that he bothers to correct us and get us back onto the right path.


These words of the Torah reach out across the generations and the millennia.  Our Sages taught that the eternal meaning of the word “today” in this verse is the Great Day of Judgment – Rosh Hashana.  So the Torah is telling us that despite our failings and setbacks, we stand upright and strong on Rosh Hashana, the first day of the new year, with faith and confidence that a new day is dawning.  Kabbalah teaches that there is not just an endless repetitive cycle in the world.  Each year on Rosh Hashana a new Divine light is drawn into the world, a beam of light (so to speak) that has never been revealed before and is from a higher spiritual source than anything we have ever had previously  On this great day, the Torah is telling us to stand upright and confident in Hashem’s positive judgment because He is the ultimate merciful judge and wants the best for us.


So does this sound Pollyanna?  Forget about everything that’s going on and just smile?  No, that’s not it.  We believe in the power of prayer and good deeds, and we also believe in the power of faith.  Faith carries a great reward in itself.  When a person recognizes the power Hashem has to change our situation for the better in the blink of an eye, when a person who is challenged “sees” the salvation as if it has happened already because of his or her faith in Hashem, Hashem rewards this faith with the outcome that we need.


So what’s next?  Faith, hope, confidence, prayer and supplication, but with joy and positivity, correction of our mistakes and positive resolutions, but most of all confidence and faith.  In just over a week we will approach Hashem on the day of Rosh Hashana, whether outdoors at Shul or wherever we may be, and pray for a new year.  As Rashi says, the day turns dark but then lights up.  It does not have to be the same stuff continuing and it won’t.  We need collectively to stand up strong with confidence and faith and expect Hashem to usher in a new year filled with hope and blessings, peace and tranquility, abundance and growth materially and spiritually.  May the new year be filled with blessings coming one after the other so that we will be asking “what next?” in the positive sense.  What is the next blessing that we are going to enjoy?  And of course the greatest blessing of all will be when all darkness is dispelled with the new era of Mashiach!

"May this year and its curses end..."

 “May the year and its curses end.”  This is not just me venting and hoping, this is a quote from the Talmud (Megillah 31b)!  The Talmudic sage Abaye discusses the fact that this week's Parsha, Ki Tavo, is always read just before the end of the Jewish year.  Abaye states that this custom was established by the great leader and prophet Ezra (who brought the Jews back to Israel to build the second Holy Temple), in order that the year and its curses will end.  What exactly is the connection?  On a basic level, it is a symbolic thing: read the curses at the end of the year and get them out of the way to  start the new year with blessings.  An interesting explanation I read recently written by Rabbi Shneor Ashkenazi is that reading the curses can take the place of them actually occurring.  We find an example of this idea in the custom to read the laws of all the animal sacrifices that were offered when the Temple stood, every day before prayer.  At least on a spiritual level, it is considered as if we have brought the sacrifice.  Another interesting custom relating to this concept is “asking for 'lekach' (honey cake)” on Erev Yom Kippur.  This is a Chassidic custom, to actually ask someone for a piece of cake, so that if it was decreed that we need to beg this year, G-d forbid, this “begging” should free us up from the need to beg for the whole year.  The same can be said for reading the curses.  May the reading take the place of any potential curses.

There are many discussions in Torah, especially in Chassidus, of the deeper meaning of the curses and how they are hidden blessings.  But on the surface level, we experience these verses as curses, and we could all relate to the above Talmudic statement this year.  Global pandemic, isolation, racial unrest, rioting and anti-Semitism, a Chabad House burned down, other Jewish businesses destroyed, missiles and firebombs flying in Southern Israel, Synagogues and schools shuttered, constant fear of infection G-d forbid, economic hardship and fear of poverty, fires and smoke everywhere.  I think as a nation we are more polarized than ever, and this has spilled over unfortunately to the Jewish community, where we see brothers and sisters allowing their political views to drive wedges between them.  Seems like a lot of curses we have to leave behind.  At the same time, we must look forward with hope.   We can thank Hashem that we are alive and well enough to read this.  This is not the first time we have experienced years with great challenges.  Our sages taught that there is "a wheel that turns in the world."  When we are at the bottom of the cycle, we know that we will be turning upward.


Rosh Hashanah, and the month of Elul leading up to it, are the perfect time to do something about this.  As we say in the High Holiday prayers, this is the time when Hashem judges the world, and each person in it, for the entire year.  This idea conjures up images of a harsh judge looking for opportunities to smite people down, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth as the Torah describes it.  Hashem is a benevolent Creator who cares for each and every one of His children.  He wants us to turn to Him and, as is discussed in Chassidus, He "accepts everyone with a smiling countenance."  Why then all the "tzores?"  I don't know, but this I do know: He wants us to pray to him and to do whatever we can to improve ourselves and the world around us.  He wants us to earn great blessings, and this can be done in two ways.  By increasing our merits - the Mitzvot, Torah study and actions that we do, and by prayer.  Just as a child can turn to his or her parent and ask for things just because they are their child, so we can turn to Hashem and ask for blessings just because we are His creations.


So I am encouraging you not to give up.  A new year is coming and we have the opportunity to ask Hashem for a much better one.  Let's do it together!  Over the next few weeks, increase your tzedakah giving.  Settle an old dispute and apologize to someone you have hurt.  Say a little extra tehillim (Psalms), be conscious of the Mitzvot you do every day, do a few more and give them more attention.  Spend some extra time studying Torah, especially the laws, customs and meanings of the upcoming holidays.  Upgrade the kosher status of your kitchen, get kosher Mezuzot for your doors.  These are all things that can be done "bite size" and don't require a complete makeover.  And plan to hear the Shofar this Rosh Hashanah, either at an outdoor, safe service or at a Shofar blowing in the park.  Prayer helps.  Prayer makes a difference!  Let's turn to our Father in Heaven and send our supplications for blessings and goodness, just because we are asking for it.  And let's hope for an end to the curses and a new beginning, a year of blessings, abundance and peace, a year of redemption with Moshiach.



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