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Rabbi Yossi's Blog

Rabbi Yossi's Blog

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Welcome to Rabbi Yossi's Blog; where you can expect to find thoughts on current events, Torah learning and Jewish spirituality. And of course, some good Jewish humor.

Freedom is not free

freedom-isnt-free.jpg "Freedom is not free" is a slogan that is usually used by people expressing support for our brave military; I think it's also apropos for Passover.

There's this romantic notion that freedom is easy; that freedom is simply the lack of limitations and removal of boundaries. But as pervasive as this idea may be, it is no less wrong. Dead wrong.

"Freedom is not free;" it's not easy. Freedom takes work. Lots of work. Hard work. But accomplishing freedom is worth all the work in the world.

Freedom means the ability to buck the trend; to live as you should not as society dictates. Freedom means the ability to overcome negative traits and bad habits.

Freedom means the courage and serenity to accept the things that you can't change and the willpower and determination to change the things that you can. And freedom provides the good sense to know the difference.

May you achieve a measure of freedom in your life this Passover. 

What not to say

It’s virtually impossible to talk to people nowadays without politics getting mixed into the discussion. I spend my days discussing religion with people, but politics? Not me! Sometimes the cost of not stating my opinion is getting accused of being pro or against one position or another.

But I choose to keep in mind the advice of the Sages who tell us that, “Just as it is an obligation to say something when it will be heeded, so too it is a mitzvah not to say something if it will not be heeded.”

I think many people would do good for themselves and those in their life if they’d keep this dictum in mind and adhered to it.

This quote from the Talmud brings to mind the great story about one of the Chassidic Masters of the previous generation, Reb Yisrael of Vizhnitz. He once visited the office a wealthy bank manager. When he was ushered into the man’s office, he sat down and looked at the banker without saying a word.

Surprised, the man asked as to the purpose of Reb Yisrael’s visit. Reb Yisrael explained, “I’ve come to fulfill the advice of the Sages not to say that which will not be heeded.”

The curious banker assured him that he would listen. Reb Yisrael just sat there without saying a word.

After numerous requests, with the bank manager assuring Reb Yisrael that he would heed the advice, Reb Yisrael relented. “There is a penniless widow who is about to be evicted from her home due to an outstanding balance she owes to your bank. I hoped that you as the manager would ignore her debt, but I was sure you wouldn’t listen, so I have a mitzvah to remain quiet.”

The bank manager interjected, “But I don’t own the bank - I can’t do anything!”

Reb Yisrael sighed, “See! I knew you wouldn’t listen.” With that, he got up and left.

The manager was inspired by Reb Yisrael’s visit and he made it his business to see to it that the widow’s loan was paid - from his own money.

Bottom line - often, (if not always - at least in regards to some topics), better results come about by that which is not said. 

 

Lesson from a skinned knee?

The call went out and everyone responded. Some grabbed what they had but others - the wealthy leaders - said that they’d let everyone else donate, and then they would fill in whatever was missing. The only problem? In the end there was a surplus, nothing was lacking.

This is what happened when Moses announced the building campaign for the Tabernacle in the desert. Everyone ran and got what they could but the Princes, the leaders of the tribes, decided to wait. They certainly had good intentions but at the end of the day, they missed an opportunity.

The next time Moses announced a collection, they were the very first to donate; they had learned their lesson.

The Torah tells us about the Princes and their relatively small donation; Rashi elaborates about their mistake and how they learned from it. While they weren’t able to fix their mistake, they did learn from it.

Sometimes we can rectify a mistake that we’ve made, and other times nothing can be done; we can’t change the past - but we can always learn from our mistakes to make a better choice in the future.

Everything that we experience, whether they’re things that we perceive as good, or things that seem to us as bad, must be a lesson for us in our Divine service and personal growth.

Did you fall and hurt your knee? Did you make a wrong turn? Even if you’ve fallen morally or spiritually; it’s all to teach a lesson and provide an opportunity for growth. 

Foresight 20/20

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“If G-d is real, why doesn’t he show Himself?” Is a common question that I’m asked in various forms at least once a week. And it’s a good question which we can discuss in detail at some point. But the simplest answer is - He does. G-d does reveal Himself, but He only reveals his back.

Just like it’s harder to recognize a person from behind, sometimes it’s difficult to recognize G-d. But just like someone whom we know well is easily recognized - even from behind; with enough familiarity we can recognize G-d in this world, too.

One of the most disturbing stories in the Torah will be read this Shabbat. It’s the narrative of the Golden Calf: Only 40 days after experiencing the unprecedented G-dly revelation at Mount Sinai (itself after witnessing the miracles of the Exodus), the Jewish people created an idol and worshiped it.


I’m not going to get into it’s creation and worship by the Jewish people, rather I’d like to highlight what Moses’ is told after obtaining G-d’s forgiveness for the Jewish people. Moses requested from G-d “show me your face” and G-d replied and  explained how it’s impossible to experience that level of Divine insight. However, G-d continued, “I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by… you will see My back but My face shall not be seen."

It doesn’t take much to see G-d’s presence in everything we do - especially when we think back to how things worked out over time. How often has it happened that you’ve experienced something that was frustrating at the time but later turned out to be good?

When we recognize in hindsight how things have worked out for the best, that’s seeing “G-d’s back”. The trick is to recognize it as such at the time, and not only in hindsight. That’s a skill worth developing. It would save us much unnecessary worry and anxiety. 

Childplay?

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One of the most important Jewish holidays takes place this Sunday. It’s so important that even Yom Kippur is second to it (in some ways). This holiday is called Purim (the formal name of Yom Kippur is Yom HaKippurim which can be translated as the Day That is Like Purim, i.e. second to Purim).

And no, Purim is not a kid’s holiday. Purim is for everyone and it’s observance should be celebrated by everyone. The customs to dress up, make loud noises when Haman’s name is mentioned and to inordinately celebrate somehow made it be thought of as a holiday for kids. (Since when did dressing up, making loud noise and celebrating become the exclusive domain of kids??)

But it truly is a significant holiday with powerful and relevant take away messages  - and everyone would do well for themselves to join the celebration.

Contrary to popular belief, Purim is not the Jewish Halloween and those hamantashen really have nothing to do with Haman. (I mean, do you think it makes sense to highlight the villain who we defeated by naming special cookies after him?)

Then why DO we dress up on Purim? And what’s the deal with Hamantashen?

If you think about it you notice that  all Jewish holidays celebrate some sort of miraculous event. Passover there were 10 plagues, splitting seas and some other amazing miracles sprinkled in for good effect. Chanukah there was a miraculous military victory and oil that miraculously kept on burning.

But Purim, there’s nothing. Take a look at the Megillah (The Scroll of Esther that recounts the story of Purim) you won’t find a single miraculous event. In fact, it’s so un-miraculous (you might say it’s miracle-less) that G-d’s name is not even mentioned in the entire story!

That’s exactly why Purim is so amazing!

Purim celebrates G-d’s behind-the-scenes hand in everything. We don’t experience miracles of biblical proportion today - but we sure do experience G-d’s behind-the-scenes miracles. Those miracles that are from such a lofty G-d source that they become embedded in nature instead of shattering the natural order.

And that’s why we dress up and eat hamantashen (and hide the best candy from the kids) - to celebrate the hidden miracle. We disguise ourselves and eat cookies with a special hidden filling, like G-d was hidden in the story of Purim - but behind the scenes caused the Jewish people to be saved.

The truth is that what happened back then on Purim is true about our daily experience in life. G-d is right here, behind the scenes, causing everything to work exactly as it should.

The future ain’t what it used to be

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“The future ain’t what it used to be.” So goes the saying attributed to (but not coined by) Yogi Berra. And I’m sure many can relate - we tend to look forward to some fabled point in the future when we’ll finally get “there” - whatever “there” means. But when we arrive in the future we realize it’s not all that it’s cranked up to be; we’re still the same person, with the same flaws  - still looking forward to when things will be better.

The past, too - we tend to think nostalgically about some bygone time when we had energy and ideas, when we were idealistic and motivated, younger and more carefree.

The truth is that we tend to think about anything - other than the present. The present is way to confronting; the present demands from us. The past or the future are not demanding, they’re distant and out of our control - it’s easy to daydream about. But the present? The present demands that we do something; it demands that we change how we live, it demands that we adjust our choices and it expects us move.

The theme of this week’s Torah portion emphasizes the importance of changing the present and not thinking about the future. It discusses the design of the Tabernacle in the desert that the Jewish people built over 3,000 years ago. The purpose of the Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments were all to lead to the construction of this physical structure - not to some transcendental experience.

Wouldn’t it make more sense that the Torah would be given as a formula to escape the constraints of this world? Shouldn’t we want to ditch this dark and unG-dly world?

The truth is that it does; the Torah empowers us not to be constrained by what society says and it frees us up from being measured by mundane definitions of success. Torah study affords us the ability to live in the present - according to the values we know to be true - and not get distracted looking forward to some awaited time in the future when “things will be different”.

The future may not be what it used to be, but the present is vastly underappreciated and underrated.

The choices we make in the present - right now - can influence the past and form the future. And most importantly, the present is the only place that we can actually change anything. 

Are you a bad Jew?

Are you a bad Jew? Too often that’s what people respond when I offer a mitzvah opportunity. “I’m a bad Jew, rabbi. I haven’t done that for years.” Do they think that I’m a priest taking confession or something?

Seriously, there is no such thing as a bad Jew. Some Jews are more observant, others not quite yet, but they’re all good. Yes, really - there is no such thing as a bad Jew. It’s actually impossible. A Jew is defined by their Jewish soul; any person born of a Jewish mother (or converted according to Jewish law) has one and no matter what the body’s choices may be, the soul always remains pure, holy and intimately connected with G-d.

This perspective is at the core of the Chabad philosophy and is what drives us to reach out to every single Jew, no matter their affiliation or lack thereof.

And here is something interesting, we discover this idea in a peculiar place in this week’s Torah portion: the laws of divorce.

Although marriage is a high priority in Judaism, the Torah acknowledges that there may be the need for divorce. In fact, should the situation arise, it’s actually a mitzvah. Without going into the details, the divorce is given from the husband to the wife in front of witnesses. There’s one important detail however, a husband must divorce his wife willingly.

Here’s where it gets interesting. If a husband is not willing to divorce his wife for whatever reason, the court has the authority to force him to. Which raises a question: how could the court force the husband to hand over the divorce if the process needs to be done willingly?

The answer is fascinating - we take into account that his unwillingness to divorce is actually due to his physical body inhibiting his soul’s true desire. In other words, the soul truly desires to do what’s right, in this situation to hand over the divorce. All that’s stopping the soul from accomplishing it’s true desire is this pesky physical body. Well, if we can “convince” the body to give up it’s hesitation - the soul’s true desire to do what’s right can be expressed.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah many Jews are plagued with feelings of guilt, “I know I should go to services on Rosh Hashanah, I know I should hear the sounding of the Shofar. But I’m not religious, I haven’t been actively involved in anything Jewish for ages. I’m such a bad Jew, how can I go?”

My message is this: You’re a good Jew, you have a vibrant Jewish soul. You belong and are a member already. We’ve saved you a seat and we look forward to seeing you.

That’s it, there are no prerequisites or requirements, just show up and allow your soul to feel at home once again. 

Modern monarchy

Some parts of Judaism and Jewish observance and culture are easy to accept and incorporate into our lives. I mean, caring for the sick and respecting one’s parents are values that anyone could get behind and be proud to support.

But then there are the less convenient things; I mean let’s face it - living in Northern California is not the most convenient area to keep kosher or Shabbat. I think that boils down to conviction; if your conviction about the truth of Torah and G-d is strong, that will often translate into observance.

However, there is something which I think is an even more fundamental area of concern for a thinking Jew today: The ideas and ideals of the Torah that, to our Western mindset, seem archaic. You know what I’m referring to - slavery, eradicating entire nations and the like; things that are not exactly in vogue today, to say the least.

Each one is understood differently and there is much wisdom to be discovered, but they’re beyond the scope of this message. I wanted to highlight something from this week’s portion: appointing a king. Appointing a king? Yes, that’s one of the topics of this week’s Torah portion and it’s one that people find difficult to relate to. I mean, a king is the antithesis of our system of government; representation by the people for the people.

So how can I, a thinking Jew, understand this text so that I can be comfortable studying it today?

As with every part of the Torah, the more we study and the better we understand, all the more relevance is discovered. There are few radical ideas that distinguish the Jewish king from any other monarch:

·         A typical king obtained their power by virtue of force and heritage; a Jewish king obtained their power from the people. The people are the one’s who accept the king, the king doesn’t impose his will on them.

·         A typical king would do everything to flaunt their wealth and their power; the Jewish king is required to limit both.

·         And a typical king was the ultimate power in the kingdom and imposed himself and his rule everywhere he could; a Jewish king is commanded to keep in mind that there is a greater power than he, the Ultimate Power in the universe, G-d.

Take a look at these ideas - I have a feeling that you might find them relevant too. When we are cognizant of G-d Above, when we remember that it’s not about us, rather it’s about the purpose and role that we have to serve, life takes on a whole new look. Suddenly we can see more clearly the needs of others, and not only how they can serve us. Suddenly we feel confident enough to give and share from the blessings we have been granted. And suddenly our life is imbued with a sense of purpose and mission.

Perhaps the information about a king is actually not outdated at all? In fact, it seems precisely tailored for our modern era of narcissistic self-centeredness. Maybe the modern monarchy is all about being king over ourselves? 

Becoming a newborn

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As you may know, just the other day our family was blessed to welcome a brand new miracle into our lives - the birth of a baby boy. He’ll get his name at his bris next week; we’re looking forward to finding out what it is.

Experiencing a birth is amazing and if you think about it, one of the most optimistic times in life. Whatever the doomsday studies about people’s negative outlooks on the future have to say, parents invariably have optimistic outlooks for their newborn child’s future.

A newborn is all about possibility and opportunity; their whole life is ahead of them and they’ll grow to be adults who will make a difference and succeed.

But our attitude towards our own life, or that of others who have already taken many steps down this road of life, is not as rosy. We view our life through the lens of our failings and challenges. We don’t always consider all the opportunity, instead we wistfully imagine what could have been.

The timing of our son’s birth is informative. You see, this Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh. And not of any month, but of the powerful month of Elul. It is the final month of the year, the one leading up to Rosh Hashanah. The famous parable of “The KIng in the Field” informs us of the remarkable energy contained in this month. It is the month in which Hashem is closer to us than throughout the rest of the year.

The month of Elul, and the High Holidays, is not about feeling guilty. It’s not about judgement in the way you usually think about it. It’s all about possibility and opportunity. Just like a newborn.

If you think about Hashem as some powerful being (with a long white beard) that’s looking harshly down on us and our folly, then yes - the High Holidays has the connotation of fear, guilt and judgement. But if we understand that Hashem is not just some being - albeit more powerful than us, but still limited. Rather we understand that Hashem is in fact our very essence; we are in truth one with Hashem. Then this time of closeness is all about our potential for greatness - no matter what we’ve done or where we’ve been until this point, we can choose to re-engage and immediately transform our life for the better.

Just like a newborn, we each have infinite potential and possibility ahead of us. But we have an advantage, we have our life experience as a solid foundation on which to build. Open yourself to the potential of this powerful month, allow yourself to be affected by its intense energy. You’ll be pleased to meet the new self that emerges at the other end of it.

The most important skill of all

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Some are born with innate skills, others develop skills based on their experiences and personal circumstances. Most of the time having a particular skill is handy, but not essential. There is one skill however that is a moral obligation for every person to develop and perfect: The skill of seeing people for who they really are - a pure and holy soul that happens to be enclothed in a physical body.

All too often we make the serious mistake of thinking of people from a wholly physical standpoint. This inevitably leads to conflict, because physical beings take up space, and when one space is occupied there is no room for another.

When we feel our space being intruded upon we defend it with any means possible, sometimes even employing the lowest form of communication - personal attacks. We berate the intruder and vilify them, and this pushes them away from our space and we feel safe once again. But this is short lived, it’s not long before we have to defend our space again.

Because as long as we take up physical space, there is no room for another.

Unfortunately, this is all the more true this year, with our unusual political season. Politics is not a dinner table topic in good times, but it seems more true than ever this year. But even if we vehemently and passionately disagree with a person, there is no need to be disagreeable. We can respectfully and even vigorously debate the issues, never allowing personal animus to influence the discussion.

But this is only possible if we look at ourselves and others in the right way. If we remember that we are all, in our core, pure and holy souls - then we will maintain the appropriate respect for the other. If, however, we allow ourselves to slip back into the physicality paradigm, we will soon find ourselves locked in bitter conflict and personal insult.

Because as long as we take up physical space, there is no room for another.

I will concede that this does take effort, we are after all physical beings. But with regular training we can strengthen this skill until it becomes second nature.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

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For some reason, being sophisticated has become a goal of modern society. Somehow, if one doesn’t enjoy opera or appreciate fine wine, they haven’t “arrived.”  There’s this notion that sophistication is a hallowed value. In reality however, this is furthest from the truth.

 I would argue that sophistication is in fact ruining lives every day. Sophistication makes a person feel less confident and causes them to second guess every choice they make.

It’s unsophisticated to eat what you enjoy, it’s unsophisticated to wear clothes you feel comfortable in. (Just like it’s unsophisticated to end a sentence with a preposition.) And sophistication ruins relationships because it’s unsophisticated to let your guard down and really be open with another person.

Marriage? Belief in G-d? Those are the epitome of unsophistication! It’s much more sophisticated to be single; it’s so much more sophisticated to doubt.

A sophisticated person won’t give you a straight answer, they won’t tell you what they think; they’ll tell you what you want to hear. I wonder if sophisticated people even have their own ideas, or if they only form them after they’ve seen the idea expressed in a NY Times editorial? They say that a sophisticated person could tell you to go to hell in such a way that you’d be looking forward to the trip.

In 1977, Apple advertised it’s first PC with the tagline, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” - and although I think Apple itself has become an icon of sophistication - there’s a lot of truth to that statement.

Simplicity is allowing yourself to live, love and laugh freely - without concern for how your actions may be misunderstood. Simplicity clears away the clutter in your life and allows you to bask in the sunshine. Simplicity encourages you, it makes you feel worthwhile and needed. And when you treat others with simplicity, it makes them feel that way too.

Simplicity is attractive, it’s the best way to make friends and create relationships. And simplicity is the key to making a marriage work. And you know what? Simplicity is what G-d wants from us too.

So please, keep it simple. Because after all, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

WIIFM?

Everyone had relaxed and made themselves as comfortable as they could get on the international flight, when suddenly the plane began to shake violently. The captain turned on the fasten seatbelt alert and for the next 30 minutes the passengers endured the worst turbulence they had ever experienced.

During a short lull in the shaking, a petrified woman turned to the rabbi sitting next to her and exclaimed, “Rabbi, do something!!” The Rabbi calmly turned to her and replied, “Sorry ma’am, I’m in marketing, not management.”

They say this actually happened to Rabbi Immanuel Schochet OBM. And he is right - rabbis are not in control of the world, they’re simply G-d’s marketing department - especially Chabad rabbis. But who are we marketing Judaism to? Jews who are interested in Judaism already seek out sources of learning. We don’t proselytize, do we?

Although there are Jews who are looking for what we are teaching, there are unfortunately many others who don’t even know what they’re missing. Let alone looking for it.

The goal of a good marketing campaign is to help potential customers realize that they really need the product that is being sold. That their life will get better because of it. And in reality, that is our goal too - to help fellow Jews discover their need for Judaism. The truth is, every Jew is intrinsically connected to G-d and His Torah; our job is to help them realize that they should engage with it, study it and live it, too.

There’s a surprising lesson in this week’s Torah portion that highlights this inherent connection. As you likely know, the Torah is a guidebook for life; the very word Torah means guidance or instruction. With that in mind, this week’s Torah portion raises a few questions. The themes this week vary from the story of Pinchas to the laws of inheritance and the sacrifices offered on Jewish holidays, among other themes.

While we have to find lessons in each of them, perhaps one of the more challenging is the laws of inheriting the land. How does this one time event have relevance to us? When we examine a little closer, we find that in fact there were three methods of dividing the land: 1) Proportionary portions i.e. according to the size of each tribe 2) Lottery i.e. not dependent on size, simply according to a lottery 3) Inheritance i.e. not dependent on any determinations other being the descendant of the inheritor.

All this is interesting, and we can delve into how all three were used in determining which tribe was allotted which portion. But, as they say in marketing, WIIFM? What’s in it for me? How is this detailed overview of this one time event relevant to my life?

Here’s the scoop - the connection to the land reflects our connection to G-d. On one level we relate to G-d on a proportional basis, He provides us with sustenance - so we give thanks. We do a mitzvah, so He rewards us accordingly - i.e. a proportional relationship, one based on the effort we invest.

But there is a deeper level of connection, the lottery level. A lottery is a reward that is not proportional to the investment. This reflects our connection to G-d that is deeper than what we do or don’t do. This level of connection is an essential bond.

The lottery level of connection is deeper than the first, but there is a deeper one still: The inheritance. An inheritance in Jewish law is different than a usual transfer of property from one person to the next. An heir is not considered a new owner - the heir is considered the continuation of the original owner’s title. This is because a parent and child are essentially one. The child is created from the very being of the parents, the child shares the parent's DNA. This level of connection reflects a level of unity in which there is truly no distinction between G-d and the Jew - they are truly one and the same. The essence of every Jew is the soul, a literal “part” of G-d.

So our work is cut out for us - rabbis have lots to do. We have to help everyone discover what it is that is lacking in their life; a stronger connection to their core. We help fellow Jews uncover and strengthen their innate personal connection with G-d. 

Be in the know

This morning, David, an exterminator originally from Romania, came to my house to spray some pesticide. Earlier this week our landlord had a tree removed which must have displaced an army of ants, and it seemed that they all decided to decamp to our home.

It didn’t take too long and he was done but he wasn’t ready to leave - he had a Jewish question. With the Menorah in front of our house, the mezuzahs on every door and the yarmulkah on my head - he somehow deduced that I’m Jewish. He wanted to know if we believe in the New Testament and the so-called Messiah that it promotes.

I explained that we do not believe in him - not as a so-called Messiah, nor a prophet and of course not the “son of god.” And we consider the New Testament to be a fictional work, at best. He was shocked! I had confirmed all the rumors that he had heard about Jews.

But he was very curious as to why we believe differently than him and we had a very respectful conversation. As sensitively as I could, I explained that as Jews we follow the Torah - what he might refer to as the Old Testament. And being that the Torah tells us not to follow false prophets, who tell us to change the Torah  - even if they perform miracles - we wouldn’t follow his so-called prophet/Messiah either. We discussed what the Messiah is supposed to accomplish and noted that none of it has yet occurred.

I shared with him some resources for further study and then he left. As he left, it occurred to me that it’s perfect timing to be discussing the details of the imminent arrival of the true Messiah and the belief in the one true G-d of Israel. You see, this week’s Torah portion contains the prophecy of a non-Jewish prophet named Balaam. He is the one who first prophesied about the future redemption.

Additionally, this weekend begins the Three Weeks, a period of mourning and introspection commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. But it’s not only about mourning the past, it’s also about looking toward the future - anticipating the ultimate redemption with Moshiach. The very destruction and devastation contain the potential for the renewal and rebuilding.

Everyone knows that as Jews we don’t proselytize; we don’t seek out potential converts to Judaism. We’re comfortable enough in “our own skin,” we don’t need to get everyone to agree with us. But many people are not aware that we do have the responsibility to promote the belief in one G-d; the idea that this world was created with a purpose and it’s up to us, collectively, to fulfill it.

But in order to teach and share, we have to be aware - we must be well versed in our own heritage. Expanding our Jewish literacy is so integral - it’s literally the key to the future. How can we raise proud Jewish children, if we don’t know enough ourselves? How can we properly answer a question from an exterminator (or anyone else that asks) - if we’re not experts in our own heritage? How can we be proud and observant Jews if we don’t know what it is all about?

It’s always a good time to add in Torah learning, but this season it is even more relevant. Take out your calendar and look at it; find some time in your day and schedule it. We schedule meetings and doctors appointments - why not schedule Torah study too? 

 

Snakes on staffs and your life

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Many people assume that the source of the widely used medical symbol of a snake on a staff is the Rod of Asclepius. I’d say that the source of that serpent-entwined staff in Greek Mythology itself is from this week’s Torah portion.

On a side note, one argument that is presented as Biblical criticism always seemed strange to me. The argument that the stories of the Torah can’t be true because all these other ancient traditions incorporated similar stories. To me that always seemed to argue for, rather than against, the veracity of Torah. It seems to me, that if a truly impactful event took place, we would find record of it in other sources too. Doesn’t the popularity of the stories that reflect biblical events, point to their historicity?

Whatever the case, the story in the week’s Torah portion is instructive: As a result of the Israelites yet again voicing their discontent with G-d’s plan for them, venomous snakes attacked. Anyone who was bitten would rapidly die. Moses fashioned a snake on a staff and whoever was bitten but looked at the staff would be healed. The commentaries point out that it wasn’t viewing the snake on the staff per se that cause healing, rather when they looked upward toward the staff they were reminded of G-d. Their repentance is what saved them.

The lesson is an important one, and doctors and their patients today should keep this in mind. G-d is the one who causes the illness and it is ultimately G-d who heals too. The doctor is a simple messenger. Doctors often get a little too confident in their ability to heal; sometimes they need to remember with Whom they are partnering in their important work.

This lesson is not only for doctors and it’s not only with regards to healing. In every area of our life; the key to success and a healthy balance is remembering our partnership with G-d. This keeps us engaged but not overwhelmed. This enables us to maintain a healthy level of involvement but allows us to maintain our priorities.

Remembering our partnership with G-d is a worthwhile investment in every regard. And the best part - it’s a long term solution!

Self evident is not enough

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The most horrific terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11 took place this week. It happened on Shavuot, the day that the Torah was given over 3300 years ago; when all the Jewish people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard G-d communicate the Ten Commandments. “Do not murder” is the sixth commandment, something that this lowly terrorist obviously didn’t observe.

Some have wondered why the need for such obvious instruction like “Do not murder” to be included in the Ten Commandments. Do we really need G-d to instruct us regarding something so basic?

The answer is yes, obviously, but likely not for the reason you’re thinking.

But first, another question - is murder intrinsically wrong? Don’t shout too loudly at me - think about this for a minute.

Other than the fact that no one would want to be on the receiving end - either as the victim of murder or as a relative or friend of a victim - what makes it wrong? Thankfully, modern society has concluded (largely due to the influence of the Ten Commandments) that murder is wrong. But what is stopping society from changing it’s collective mind? If it’s merely a consensus of opinion, that could easily change.

That’s the reason why G-d had to command us regarding matters that seem to us to be self evident, such as murder. If something is based solely on our understanding, it is based on very shaky ground. Today we view murder as unacceptable, but who is to say that tomorrow we won’t understand it differently?

In fact, terrorists think that it is entirely legitimate to murder non-believers. The Nazis - a well educated and modern group of people - legitimized the wholesale murder of millions. (All while being concerned with animals and their welfare, mind you.)

This is why it is imperative that we accept the prohibition of murder not simply because it makes sense but more importantly, because it is G-d’s command. At the very core of the matter is the acknowledgment that we are not the sole arbiters of right and wrong and good and evil.

We may not be able to do much to help the victims of this attack and we may not be able to prevent the next one. But one thing we can do is increase in goodness and kindness, spreading a little (or a lot) more light.

A little light can displace a lot of darkness.

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