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Rabbi Yossi's Blog

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.

Meaning in Mirrors

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As a fundraiser, I can tell you that sometimes you need to be able to say “No!”. Cash donations are always helpful, they can be used to cover an organization's budget or used to underwrite a special project. But “In Kind” donations can sometimes be a little sticky. Yes, someone’s expertise in a particular field can be extremely helpful, as valuable used items can often be too.

But then there are the dreaded donations of items that the donor simply can’t bring themselves to discard, like great-grandma’s wedding dress or baby toys and books from their now married child; even given the significant sentimental value of these items, accepting these items often cause more headache and expense to the organization than benefit.

It’s not surprising then that Moses initially balked when his call for donations for the construction of the Tabernacle was enthusiastically heeded by women who donated their old copper mirrors. I wouldn’t be surprised if his initial thought was, “Really? Seriously!? Your old mirrors?!”

The commentaries tell us that Moses’ hesitation was actually based on something more significant than wondering what to do with thousands of old mirrors. (After all, they were made of copper which was one of the needed construction materials…)

A common issue raised by religious leaders is often the superficiality with which so many lead their lives. The motivation to be attractive and alluring often plays right into the theme as well. And sensuality and sexuality are never far behind either.

It’s no surprise therefore that when Moses saw the mirrors he was reluctant to accept them. The Tabernacle was to be a beacon of sanctity and elevation, not a shrine of vanity. How would these mirrors fit with the intended effect of the structure he was building?

However, despite Moses’ misgivings, G-d instructed him to accept them. They were given with sincerity and during the Egyptian exile had actually been used for positive ends. The women had used them to enhance their appearance in order to be attractive to their husbands. And not for superficial and selfish motivation either; their singular intention was in order to be able to give birth to, and raise, a new generation.

The sincerity with which the mirrors had been used, and the wholeheartedness with which they were donated, had elevated these usually superficial items into material worthy of being used in the sanctuary of G-d. In fact, the source of the material used to create the Kohen’s washing station - the very first step in the daily Temple service, were these same copper mirrors donated by the women.

Many people excuse themselves from getting in on the worldwide project of elevating the global consciousness and making this world a G-dly abode by telling themselves that they are not worthy. My typical physical life is without spiritual value that I can contribute. This story tells us otherwise; even items typically used for superficial purposes can be made holy. Everything in our lives can be transformed to holiness too.

Elevated by Sin

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You could argue that (spiritually, at least) it was the lowest point in Jewish history, especially considering from where they had come. Just weeks after the most significant event in history, the revelation at Mount Sinai; when G-d Almighty alone had communicated to the Jewish people the instructions of belief in one G-d and not to worship false deities, the Jewish people sinned.

And it wasn’t a “small” sin either, it was the mother of all sins - idol worship. They built the infamous Golden Calf and set about worshiping it. To make matters worse, they engaged in murder and all manner of illicit relations to boot.

The effects of this sin were devastating; Moses smashed the tablets that he had just received from G-d, the perpetrators of this public rebellion were put to death and history was changed forever.

In sharing the details of this low point in Jewish history one would expect that our Torah portion, which shares the story, would be named with a negative descriptor, one which gives us an indication as to the negative nature of the narrative.

However, not only does the name not provide any clue as to the damming story within, it seems to imply the exact opposite. The name of this week’s Torah portion, where the details of the Golden Calf rebellion are shared is, Ki Tisa - “when you raise up”.

If there were ever a misnamed portion, this has got to be it! What is this about?

In fact, as we read on it becomes even more mystifying. The Torah relates how Moses intercedes on behalf of the people and lobbies G-d incessantly for forgiveness. Finally forgiveness is obtained and G-d even agrees to share with Moses the “13 Attributes of Mercy”; G-d’s formula of achieving return, should future mistakes happen.

One section of which reads as follows: G-d “Forgives premeditated misdeeds, rebellious misdeeds and unintentional misdeeds”. The Hebrew word used here to mean “forgive” is “Nosei” which translates literally as “raise up”.

There seems to be a pattern here. Sin, while rebellious and distancing from G-d, has an element of elevation programmed into it.

The Chassidic masters explain that while sin is a negative action, it’s motivation and underlying power may well be used for positive. The act is wrong and needs to be refrained from and renounced but the desire can be channeled for good.

While the sin itself is bad, it’s source can still bring an elevation.

People think that to live according to Torah guidance means changing who they are, somehow fundamentally shifting their personality and personal traits. The truth is, it’s a matter of elevation; we need to surround ourselves with the positive and uplifting messages which will transfer into our choices.

And if we do make a mistake? It can still be a source of elevation, as we learn from our mistakes to craft a brighter future.

What's with the donkey?

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From some people we learn from their example how to live a good and accomplished life.

From others we learn how not to live and which choices to avoid.

In the entire Torah Moses is consistently considered an exemplar of the former, however a few episodes deliberately included in the Torah (the Divine guidebook for life) highlight the latter.

Everyone knows that Moses was chosen by G-d to redeem the Jewish people. And we all know how that story ends - right? Moses confronts Pharaoh, brings 10 plagues to subdue the Egyptians and everyone lives happily ever after.

What's missing is the fact that Moses actually tried to get out of it. That’s right, for an entire week everything was put on hold; waiting to see if Moses would submit to G-d’s request or not.

And then, when Moses finally accepts G-d’s mission, there is something amazing embedded in the narrative for us to discover.

The Donkey. That’s the one Moses used to transport his family to Egypt. Not just any random donkey - The “known” Donkey.

The commentaries point out that this donkey already had a history. It was the same donkey that had been used by Abraham to transport his equipment to the fateful “Binding of Isaac”.

In that instance, however, Abraham had demonstrated his deep commitment to G-d. He had not wavered for a second. Not only that, he rushed to fulfill G-d’s command.

This message is being conveyed to Moses, all these years later. Abraham had followed G-d’s instruction unhesitatingly. You, Moses, should be doing the same.

Sounds great, right? Highlight a textual anomaly, provide a nice answer and we have a wonderful message.

But it’s not that simple.

You see, when we look to see why Moses was delaying, it’s not as simple anymore. For an entire week Moses was simply requesting that G-d find someone better qualified for the job. Moses felt that he was under-qualified. Only after an entire week of persistence did G-d convince Moses to go ahead and agree to the mission.

G-d is aware of Moses’ strengths and capabilities. But it took Moses himself a week to come to terms with his own strengths and abilities.

All too often we experience the same thing in our personal lives. We know what must be done - and we can do it - but we don’t pull through. We think someone else is more capable or better equipped to accomplish the task.

Time goes by, and nothing is accomplished.

While it is important to recognize and acknowledge one’s weaknesses, it is vitally important to recognize one’s strengths too. Often we know that we are being called on to accomplish something greater, yet we second guess ourselves and our abilities.

And so, life goes on; same old, same old.

A vital message from this week’s Torah narrative is the importance to push aside our self doubt and jump right in to what we know needs to be done.

 

 

Time management and life management

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Some things come naturally to some people but for others they’re a struggle. And I struggle with time management. I constantly try to squeeze in one extra thing, even though (in the back of my mind) I know that I have to leave now to be punctual. I get easily distracted by something important (though not urgent) that comes up - even while I’m supposed to be working on something else.

And worst of all, I can sometimes find myself down a rabbit hole - usually discovering something interesting and informative - yet completely irrelevant.

The best method that I’ve found for dealing with this is to ensure that I start my day by reviewing my calendar and tasks, and knowing clearly which responsibilities are on today’s schedule. When I do that, I find myself much more focused and less easily derailed.

Yesterday morning I found myself getting very easily distracted and I realized that due to an appointment I had first thing in the morning, I hadn’t reviewed my tasks. Of course, once I did, I realized how woefully behind I was…

Here’s the thing though - this time management solution that I’m describing can only work if I’ve made sure to schedule my day and create a list of tasks. If I hadn’t done that yesterday, I would have had nothing to refocus and reorient myself toward today.

In my experience, when I have a very busy day - packed with work and meetings and classes, and I manage to mostly remain focused and accomplish much of what had needed to be done, at the end of the day I feel good. Perhaps somewhat tired, but my mind feels “intact”.

On the other hand, if I have a very busy day filled with similar activities but without the planning, rather just responding to whatever comes up, aside from getting distracted much more easily, I also feel worse at the end of the day. I feel like I’m chasing my tail, like I’m not accomplishing anything - emotionally worn out.

These time management experiences, I think, reflect life in general. A meaningful life is one that is based on a belief system that we then intentionally live out every single day.

The troubling aspect of this is that while it’s fairly common to plan one’s “professional” day, it is much less common for people to plan their life. You might be able to communicate your company’s missions statement with reasonable accuracy, but do have a personal mission statement?

Obviously you can’t plan every aspect of your life, but some things should not change regardless of where your career takes you or in which city you end up living. It is true that everyone experiences distractions and diversions from what they know to be true and correct. However, if your life is one big experience of “going with the flow” (one of those popular sayings that is often more harmful than helpful), your life can feel like you are perpetually chasing your tail and not accomplishing anything.

This week’s Torah portion begins by emphasizing the fact that our forefather Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years. Our sages tell us that these were the 17 best years of his life (17 is the numerical value of the Hebrew word טוב, good). While a superficial overview of his life would reveal that physically this might have been the case, how does it compute that the saintly Jacob would live his most spiritually satisfying years in Egypt? Egypt is described as being filled with debauchery, not exactly a spiritual oasis.

He was able to accomplish this because he lived with intention. His life was oriented around Torah and it’s guidance; he chose how to live and which things would take priority. He certainly didn’t “go with the flow”.  Therefore, although he was surrounded by some of the lowest behaviors on earth, his life was not affected - in fact, he lived his 17 best years in Egypt.

When our life is lived with intention, nothing can interfere with our ability to create the life we want. Even if we will temporarily veer from that path, we have the foundation to which to return.

Joseph the cosmopolitan

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One of the most deep and profound narratives of the Torah is the saga of Joseph and his brothers, a pivotal episode of which is found in this week’s Torah portion. Being that the forefathers - as well as Joseph and his brother’s - were righteous, holy and G-d fearing men, the working understanding is that there is much more to the stories than meets the eye.

One of the lesser discussed subplots of this narrative is the difference between the location that Joseph lived his life and that of his brothers. The location also had much effect on the focus of their lives too.

The Torah highlights the fact that our forefathers were shepherds. In addition to their primary line of work being outside the city, they also dwelled outside the main population centers of the time. Joseph, on the other hand, lived in the capital city of the most influential country of his era and eventually became the de-facto leader of the country.

Despite their initial hesitation, Jacob and his sons all moved down to Egypt too. In other words, initially they lived in relative seclusion. Then, following Joseph’s urging, they too moved to the center of society.

If you’ll look closely at Jewish history, you will discover a similar pattern repeating itself. Initially the Jewish people all lived in the Holy Land, with the Temple as their focal point. But then, following the destruction of the Temple, spread out all over the world.

For generations, even while living in all sorts of countries all around the world, the Jewish population stayed together and lived in close knit communities, hardly interacting with their gentile neighbors. Fast forward to today where the majority of Jewish people live and work among people from all walks of life.

(In the Chabad world too, this pattern exists: Initially the headquarters of the movement was in a tiny village called Lubavitch. Today the headquarters of the movement is in New York City, one of the most influential cities in the world and local Chabad Houses continue to be opened in every corner of the globe.)

While interesting to note, there is obviously something more to the story than mere happenstance.

Our role as Jews has always been to positively influence the world. While we may only constitute a tiny fraction of the global population, we have shown that we are up to the challenge. In fact, the bedrock upon which Western civilization is built, is the moral code first outlined in the Torah.

However it’s difficult to influence anybody if you have no contact with them, that is why throughout history G-d has caused events to happen in order to move us closer to the centers of influence.

The questions is, why then does the cycle continue? Why not simply start and stay in the “thick of things”. Why the pattern - separation and insularity, followed by integration - why not stay on the global stage instead of constantly stepping down, only to take center stage again some time later?

In order to be effective in guiding the world around us (while not being affected by the influences of the world), one must have a solid foundation from which to operate. First develop ourselves, then extend what we’ve learned to other’s.

This highlights why it’s integral to provide our children with a Torah true Jewish education from a young age. This provides the foundation for their life and gives them a solid footing from which to influence the world around them.

This principle is also true to each of us, every day of our lives. We should begin the day with a focus on our connection to G-d. Start the day with prayer and meditation, Torah study and a focus on Mitzvah performance - then we have the foundation from which to approach life and be a force for good in our daily interactions.

A little naivete goes a long way

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Last night Jewish people all over the world lit the 5th Chanukah candle. There’s something unique about the 5th night - it’s the first time we have the majority of the Menorah lit.

There’s an important Chanukah message related to the Menorah, a message that I feel is not discussed as often as it deserves. The truth is that the very same message is related to the very miracle of Chanukah itself.

Think about the act of lighting the Chanukah candles. We begin with but one candle. The second night we add only one more; each night we add just one candle.

When Chanukah begins, there’s much darkness. Even our little light is only one out of eight branches of the Menorah. But with a little persistence and consistency, in due course we find ourselves lighting the majority of the branches. Until in the end, on the eighth night, all eight branches are lit.

It takes a healthy dose of idealism, matched with equal amounts of naivete, to think that you can change the world. The message of Chanukah is a simple yet extremely powerful one: Don’t let the darkness overwhelm and discourage you. Light your flame, ignite your small corner of the world. Add a little more light each day - only one little bit more than before - and before long, with a little persistence and consistency, you will have changed the world for good.

This is truly how the entire Chanukah miracle took place. One simple act of idealism and yes, naivete, brought about a huge miracle.

Think about it - did it make sense to light the one flask of pure oil found by the Maccabees? It would last for only one day - and it would be another seven days until fresh pure oil could be manufactured. What would be accomplished by lighting the flames for that one night, only to leave the Menorah dark for the next seven?

Yet, light it they did. And we know the rest of story: The amazing miracle that took place and the annual celebration we still commemorate every year - over 2000 years later.

Which leads us to an important additional detail. When it comes to increasing in goodness and light we need to retire our self doubt and bring on a little naivete. Yes, our consistency will lead to much more than we imagine. But there’s even more to the story; G-d sees our commitment and dedication and throws a little divine power behind our efforts.

Suddenly our little light miraculously lasts for eight days and changes the world forever.

Seasons of the Soul

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Every year we experience changes in seasons; spring changes into summer, followed by fall which leads into winter. The cycle repeats itself every year. And although it may be a whole new year and we may be experiencing all sorts of changes in our life this year over last, still the seasons repeat themselves in the same way as the previous year.

Just as there are physical seasons, there are also spiritual seasons. These are punctuated by the holidays on the Jewish calendar; when these holidays come around, we’re not just commemorating what happened many years ago; we re-experience the same forces that originally caused these events to take place.

Next Friday night (March 30th) is the first night of Passover and (hopefully) everyone will be gathered with their family and friends for the first seder. At that time we will not be gathering simply to commemorate the experience of our ancestors; we can actually experience the same Exodus that they did.

But just like the physical seasons, we need to engage. If we were to remain in a temperature controlled environment we would never feel the difference between the seasons. And just because we wouldn’t experience the changes in seasons, it obviously wouldn’t indicate that the season hadn’t changed. It’s just that we were cocooned in our controlled environment and couldn’t experience the changes that were taking place.

Pesach (Passover) is so named not only because that’s how G-d practically saved the Jewish people back then, but it’s called Pesach (Passover) because that is the spiritual season this time of year. It’s a season of Exodus and passing over; jumping to a whole new place.

The Jewish people didn’t gradually become free, gaining more rights over the years until eventually becoming free. In an instant they went from being slaves to being free. A complete departure from their previous experience into a whole new reality.

Walking represents gradual achievement, incremental growth - one step after another. Jumping implies exponential growth. One lifts oneself from the place they are in and transports oneself to a whole new place.

The spiritual forces during this spiritual season that caused the original Exodus are just as prevalent today as they were back then. All that’s needed on our part is to leave our controlled environment and engage with the season.

Jump to a whole new place and truly experience real and personal exodus this Passover.

 

Guaranteed to fail

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There is one sure-fire, guaranteed, absolutely 100% certain way to ensure failure and that is to never try. If you don’t try learning that new skill, you can be certain to never learn it. If you don’t try to open that business, you can be guaranteed that it won’t open itself. And if you never make an effort to accomplish your goals; well, you know - you are guaranteed that they won’t accomplish themselves.

In fact, for thousands of years people from all walks of life have been ensuring failure using this foolproof method. And for one low, low price it can be yours today! Simply don’t try and you’re guaranteed to fail.

It is possible that our ideas, dreams and goals may be a little (or a lot!) out of our reach. And it’s certainly possible that we don’t currently have the necessary tools, contacts, resources - what have you, to make it work. But if we don’t make an effort, it will certainly never happen. The secret to success is taking the first step - even if we fall on our face, we’ll get up a little further ahead of where we began.

This lesson is embedded in a peculiar commentary in this week’s Torah portion. You know the story - Moses in the basket with his sister Miriam observing nearby. Batya, Pharaoh's daughter, comes to bathe in the Nile and sees the basket, hears the child crying and sends her maid to fetch the basket.

That’s the simple reading of the text. Rashi, the famous biblical commentator, uncharacteristically doesn’t suffice with the simple reading; he shares a second more miraculous explanation: Batya stretched out her hand to reach the basket and G-d miraculously extended her arm to enable her to draw the basket closer.

Why the need to explain this simple enough verse with some miraculous event? One answer suggested is that this was to communicate a powerful lesson - the value in making the effort, even when external forces are stacked up against you.

Batya knew she was too far to reach the basket, but she also knew she had to try. She stretched out her arm and miraculously she was able to reach it. But had she not stretched out her arm, that never would have happened.

“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough,” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female to be elected head of state in Africa, is said to have commented. True, but being scared isn’t going to help get them achieved - taking the first step towards achieving them,even when you’re scared; that is how to accomplish absolutely anything.

May you live in interesting times

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“May you live in interesting times.”

They say that it’s an ancient curse, even though no one had used it until a hundred years ago. Supposedly the curse aspect is that peace and tranquility, “normal life,” is not interesting. But I never viewed this popular expression as a curse - I viewed it as encouragement. Every day can be interesting, if we only took the time to notice what was happening.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to take my daughter to the airport; she was going to winter camp for a week. Due to some last minute changes in her ticket, she couldn’t get on her original flight and we found ourselves waiting at the airport for a few hours for the next one.

After exploring the terminal for a quieter place to sit, scoping out the nearest restroom and finding a few Kosher snacks, we still had three hours to go until her flight. I had some work to do on my computer but my daughter soon began to get restless.

“What could I do? I’m so bored?” She didn’t even have a book to read. Loath to having her spend three hours playing games on my phone, I told her to take a walk and see what new things she notices. We had already been through the entire terminal, “There’s nothing to see!” she insisted.

I explained to her that when you don’t pay attention there are many details that are missed. I looked up and noticed the entire wall ahead of us was windows - huge windows, with giant mechanical shades on the outside. I pointed them out and asked her if she had noticed it before? She hadn’t and, intrigued, ran over to check them out a little closer up. I then pointed out the exposed beams in the ceiling, she found that interesting too.

I asked her to walk up and down the terminal and try to notice things - people dressed differently, interesting design elements in the building. She came back a while later; she had noticed an interesting chandelier and seen a person with brightly dyed hair. She had noticed how the planes take off and land in different directions and which airlines were occupying which gates.

This little exercise didn’t last all that long but it did remind me of something important - we all are so caught up in our lives; jobs, family and all the things pulling our attention that we forget to take the time to observe.

I’m sure that if we actually did take the time to observe our life would much easier to manage. Someone who is detached enough from a stressful situation to observe what is going on, is much less likely to react negatively. When we take the time to notice what is happening around us - what we pass, who we meet and what they say, suddenly our life becomes much richer - and more interesting.

One more thing - when we take the time to be present in our life, we have the ability to influence others in a positive way. When we are simply going with the flow - we’re too overwhelmed to even take care of ourselves, let alone influence others. When we live our life intentionally, observing ourselves and what we are experiencing, we can have a positive effect on those around us. After all, that is what we Jews are here to accomplish - making this world a G-dly place.

So, my blessing to you is, “May you live in interesting times!”

 

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

Future Yogi Berra.jpg 

“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. 

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