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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.

5 Facts About Israel That You May Not Have Known

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1. The Jewish claim to the land dates back over 4000 years

The Jewish claim to the land began much earlier than 1897 (the year of the First Zionist Congress). As described in the Torah, G-d created the world and chose the Jewish people as His chosen nation and gave them the land as an eternal inheritance. This was first promised by G-d to our forefather Abraham (as described in this week’s Torah portion) and then again to his son, Isaac, and later to his son Jacob. (Actually, the area promised to our forefathers, and later described in the Torah, is much larger than the Israel we know of today).

2. The Jewish people first settled in Israel over 3000 years ago

In the year 1273 BCE, under the leadership of Joshua, the Jewish people entered Israel, then called the Land of Canaan. Their first seven years in the land they waged war and defeated the 31 kings living there, and conquered their territory; the following seven years the land was divided among the 12 tribes and a portion of land was allocated to each tribe. The Jewish people lived in the land and controlled it for over 800 years, until the destruction of the first Temple in the year 422 BCE.

3. It’s called “Israel” but maybe it should have been called “Judah”

Jacob, our forefather, was given a second name, Israel, when he defeated the angel of his brother Esau. Since then, his descendants were called the “Children of Israel.” When they entered the land, it eventually became known as the “Land of Israel.” The first record of it being referred to in such a way is in the book of Samuel (1 Samuel 13:19).

In a way, it would make more sense for it be named “Judah.” You see, after King Solomon’s death, the land was split into two Jewish kingdoms; the Northern Kingdom was called the Kingdom of Israel, while the Southern Kingdom (where the Temple was situated) was called the Kingdom of Judah.

Eventually, the Northern Kingdom was defeated by the Assyrian Empire and the Jewish people living there were exiled to other countries, never to be heard of again. (They’re known as the Ten Lost Tribes.) The Southern Kingdom was miraculously saved and spared a similar fate. The Kingdom of Judah remained, and it would seem that the name “Judah” could have stuck.

4. Israel is called the Holy Land; but there are also “Holy Cities”

Jerusalem is the city that King David founded and chose to be the location of the Holy Temple. Hebron is the burial site of the patriarchs and matriarchs and was first purchased by our forefather Abraham. Safed is a mystical city in the north of Israel, a city that was the source for much of Jewish mysticism. Tiberias was an important center of Torah learning and was the city where the Sanhedrin (the rabbinical equivalent of the Supreme Court) last convened, and the place that it will return. Many great sages are buried there and we’re told that the revelation of Moshiach will begin there.

5. The Western Wall is not actually a wall of the Holy Temple

The wall we call today the Western Wall was never a part of the Holy Temple itself; it was part of the Temple Mount retaining wall. In the 1st century BCE, Herod the Great undertook a massive renovation project; to restore and beautify the then-dilapidated Second Temple. His project was so ambitious, that it even called for expanding the Temple Mount itself, hence the retaining wall.

When the Romans destroyed the Temple in 69 CE, this wall was not destroyed. And nearly two thousand years later, the wall still stands. It is a symbol of the resilience of the Jewish people, and the closest (readily accessible) spot to the location of the Holy Temple.

Oh, and one more thing - do you know how the area even became known as Palestine (until 75 years ago)? Well, to be clear, we Jews never stopped calling it Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, but others called it Palestine due to the spitefulness of the Romans. 

The Romans were so incensed by the Jewish revolt led by Bar Kochba that when they finally defeated the revolt they renamed the area Syria Palaestina (Palestinian Syria) after the ancient Biblical nemesis of the Jewish people, the Philistines

By the way, you know the meaning of the name Philistine? The ones whose name the Romans used to spite the Jews? Yeah, the meaning of their name is (foreign) “invaders”. Quite ironic that some modern Arabs adopted their name to attempt to lay claim on our historical homeland…

Deep sea exploration

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The unknown has always fascinated humanity. And much of what we know of the far reaches of the universe is thanks to those brave (others would call them foolhardy) individuals who took risks to uncover the unknown.

The ones who ventured into the wilderness not knowing what was lurking past the mountains; those who were ready to follow their conviction of the nature of the earth in order to discover new routes of travel - only to discover new land. And those who were ready to dive deep into the sea to find what’s lurking miles beneath the surface.

As I’m sure you heard, this week such an expedition ended in a terrible way, the Titan deep sea submersible imploded killing all five people on board.

The question, as always, is why am I hearing about it? Why did I learn about this tragedy? We’re told by the Jewish mystics that everything we see and hear should serve as a guide in our life and the way we serve G-d. What lesson in my Divine service can there possibly be from such a story?

Judaism teaches us that the world as we know it conceals G-dliness, hence the ability for people to deny G-d’s existence - even while the very fact that they are alive is due to G-d causing them to exist. Every breath they take is being caused by G-d, yet with their very G-d given breath, they deny His existence. That’s why this world is referred to by the mystics as the “World of Concealment”.

Interestingly, the parable for this is the sea. While there is an entire teeming ecosystem underwater, when we look out across the ocean all we observe is water. There is no indication of the myriad life forms within until we dive deep and discover what’s beneath the surface.

Our role, our purpose of existence, is to be like deep sea submersibles and reveal the hidden nature of our physical reality - and avoid imploding in the process.

Torah study and mitzvah observance provide the tools we need to successfully navigate this deep sea expedition. But it’s imperative that we maintain perspective in the process of our quest. For this purpose G-d provides us with authentic Jewish leaders who guide us in this sometimes daunting process.

The Rebbe is such a leader. Despite his physical passing 29 years ago (the anniversary of which was yesterday, the 3rd of Tammuz), his guidance, leadership and influence continues to grow and provide the necessary inspiration to avoid (spiritual) implosion.

While many of us aren’t the type to sign up for such risky explorations - at this point we’ve already been “thrown in on the deep end.” We are already living in this spiritually submerged reality, we might as well join the effort to pull back the concealment and live up to the purpose we were thrown into it in the first place.

 

What does FDIC stand for?

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I’m assuming you think that the letters FDIC stand for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Or maybe as you’ve been following recent news you decided that it stands for Folly Driven Investment Choices. If you’re the more pessimistic type, you might think it’s a foreboding acronym like Financial Disaster Is Coming. But I’d like to think it’s an acronym that is reminding us to Find Divine Inspiration in Current events.

Whenever there’s a big financial crisis the questions often surround the regulators, were they properly doing their job? How were such risky decisions allowed? Often regulators are too easy on those who they are supposed to regulate. They trust and rely on them more than they should.

Truthfully though, no one should be above oversight. In fact, the Kohen handling the finances in the Temple wouldn’t be allowed to wear a garment with pockets or carry a bag into the Temple treasury so that no one could accuse them of pilfering communal funds. Even Moses was asked to provide an accounting of all the materials that were donated for the construction of the Temple and how they were allocated. 

The accounting that Moses provided is recorded in this week’s Torah portion and underscores the importance of behaving beyond reprove, no matter who one might be. 

But there’s something that to me is even more profound embedded in the textual structure of this week’s Torah portion. We read a double portion of the Torah this week, when two portions are combined and read at one time. The second portion, Pekudei, is the one which discusses the tabernacle donations accounting. In fact, the term Pekudei means “accounts”. 

The portion begins with the Hebrew word, אלה, (eiyleh), “these are”. Elsewhere the commentaries point out that when the verse begins with this word as it appears here, it dismisses the previous discussion and is beginning anew. As opposed to when the Hebrew letter vav is at the beginning of it, ואלה “v’eilah”, meaning “AND these are”, then it is adding to what was previously discussed.

The way this verse is configured implies that the focus is on the coming portion, not the previous. In other words, which accounts are meaningful and significant enough to report? Those that were used to construct the sanctuary. 

Which reminds me of the story of the 19th century philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. He was once asked what he was worth. He made a brief calculation and stated a number. The questioner was baffled, “Surely you’re worth much more than that!”

Sir Moses explained, “You didn’t ask how much I own, you asked my worth. What I own now could transfer to another's possession in a matter of minutes. What I’ve given to Tzedakah, to support those in need or to benefit the community, that’s my true worth and can never be taken away.

By configuring the verse as it does, our Torah portion implies that the money we give away is the most significant element of our net worth. Not how much we have invested, as we’ve seen recently that could turn upside down and be lost in no time. Not how much we have in our bank account. Rather how much we’ve given to others.

Perhaps FDIC stands for Funds Donated and Invested in Charity (or maybe that final C stands for Chabad)?

Elevated dish washing

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

What is the best way to express a deep and passionate love? Sometimes the answer may well be by taking out the garbage and washing the dishes. Roses and chocolates may be nice, but they're superficial; the real expression of love is in the simple and even mundane acts that you do for the other.

Last week we read about the awesome revelation at Mount Sinai. Together as a people we witnessed direct divine revelation; no other group of people in history can lay claim to such an experience.

This week, though, we immediately learn about "earthly" laws: laws associated with business and dispute, laws of damages and laws of courts, laws of false promises and bribery. What a contrast - after being in such an inspired and elevated state, to deal with such mundane matters!

When we study Judaism a little deeper, we learn that although the elevated and inspired state is important, even more significant is to translate that inspiration into practice. The greater the inspiration and connection to G-d, the more profoundly affected should our physical lives be as well.

 

The purpose of the giving of the Torah and the revelation at Mount Sinai was not to show us how to escape this physical reality. The purpose of the giving of the Torah and the revelation at Mount Sinai was to show us how to elevate our physical life and to infuse our life with holiness.

This week's Torah portion is the 18th portion in the Torah. 18 is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word Chai, which means life. The Torah is not only relevant in the Synagogue, the Torah is relevant to every part of our life. It's not just about infusing Judaism into our life, it's about living a Jewish life.

Super Bowl and Super Women

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Despite the 49ers missing the cut, almost everyone I know plans to watch the Super Bowl this Sunday. It makes sense after all since the Super Bowl is the largest and most participated in annual religious experience in the US. 

Think about it: Just like a religion, it has its own rituals, and just like a religion, there are varying degrees of observance. There are those who not only watch the game, but spend an entire weekend at pre and post game parties; kind of like the people who spend the entire Yom Kippur in the synagogue. Then you have the people who just watch the game itself; that’s like those who just come to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (or just for Yizkor on Yom Kippur). You even have the people who just watch the commercials - like the crowd that comes just for the kiddush (or the JFK Club as it’s called)!

That’s right, the Religion of Sports has, for many American Jews, replaced their Jewish heritage. It provides community and a goal to work toward, and no doubt the euphoric sense of being in a stadium packed with fans can easily compete with the most inspiring religious experience.

Despite numerous invitations, this Sunday I’ll be watching a completely different spectacle. I’ll be watching the annual banquet of the International Shluchos Conference. 

In case you need it, here’s a brief primer of some Chabad lingo: Chabad rabbis are actually called “Shluchim” which means emissaries (or in the singular, “shliach”). The feminine version of the word is “Shluchos” (or in the singular, Shlucha).

The secret of Chabad are the Shluchos; they are the ones who keep things on track and on mark. In Judaism it has always been known that the woman is the one who truly sets the tone in the home and this is certainly true in a Chabad House. 

The Shluchos are the ones who run the household, make sure the kids (and their husbands) are fed and dressed - all while giving classes, running community programs, meeting privately with people and ensuring that nothing falls through the cracks.

The Shluchos are the ultimate givers; they share themselves and their lives in heroic ways. Ensuring that everyone is cared for and remembered. 

I find the contrast between these two major events to be very significant and actually highlights divergent approaches to life. 

The way I see it, the primary difference between the Torah centered lifestyle and the lifestyle promoted in popular culture is this: The Torah focuses on giving and the pop culture value system is based on taking.

What do you think, is there something wrong with taking? Is there something wrong with watching out for your needs?

Yes and no. While we certainly need to take care of ourselves there’s something unsettling about taking, to the point that it makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because man is hardwired to be a giver, to contribute. Of course we have to take care of ourselves, but what is the end goal? Why are we taking care of ourselves? Just so that we can live a little longer and be a taker for more time? Or is there something more?

More to life there definitely is, but the secret is not looking out for yourself with more passion - it’s doing more for another. That’s how we fulfill our purpose in life.

The Torah advocates giving, both to G-d and to man. Doing a mitzvah because that’s what G-d wants from us, not just because it feels like the right thing to do. Helping another in times of need, not to varnish our resume or be awarded the “Humanitarian of the Year” award, but rather just to help them.

The most ironic part of it is, that the secret to finding happiness is not by getting what you want from life, it’s by giving of yourself to others. In other words, the more you focus on giving, both to man and G-d, the happier your life will be. 

So this Sunday afternoon, whether you watch the Super Bowl or the Shluchos banquet, take some time to consider how to strengthen your giving muscle. It will make your life so much richer, deeper and more satisfying. Even watching the Super Bowl, the epitome of pop culture, can be a giving opportunity. So go ahead, try giving instead of taking; you’ll be happier for it!

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While Goldie is in New York, she will be visiting and praying at the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, an auspicious and holy place. If you would like her to pray on your behalf or on behalf of a family member who could use a blessing, please email her [email protected]. Please include in the email your Jewish name and your mother’s Jewish name, as it is customary to include them in the prayer. 

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Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash 

They say never discuss religion or politics with family; I think we need to actually add another “untouchable”: Apple vs. Android. Many people are uncomfortable speaking about things that, although truly important to them, they feel may not be "politically correct" to share.

This week's Torah portion, however, advances a strong case for sharing the greatness that you experience. It speaks about the final stage of the Exodus, the miracle of the Splitting of the Reed Sea. But it doesn't just mention it, the Torah records how the Jewish people, led by Moshe, sang songs of thanksgiving for this miracle. In addition to recognizing G-d's miracles it also served to publicize them. 

Chassidic thought teaches that a primary purpose in life is to reveal the G-dliness within the physical reality. This is accomplished primarily through fulfilling the Mitzvot and recognizing G-d's existence in the world.

When we see something, we should say something. When we marvel at the beauty of G-d's creations or experience miraculous events, we shouldn't keep it to ourselves, rather we should share it with others.

I'm not advocating changing Judaism into a proselytizing religion, but I do think it's integral that we ensure that we are knowledgeable and confident enough to be able to share it. After all, we have a responsibility to share it with our children and raise them to be knowledgeable and engaged Jews. And when our non Jewish friends or coworkers ask us why we do this or why we don't believe that,it wouldn’t hurt to be able to answer properly (not just saying that's the way we do it).

The very first step is to study and be knowledgeable. Get started now, there's no time like the present.

 

You can’t take your stuff with you

 
We tend to define our lives with “stuff”. 
 
And we have way too much stuff. We buy too much stuff. And then we keep too much stuff.
 
And when we have all this stuff, we start to worry about it; “What if my kid breaks some of my nice stuff? What if someone steals my fancy stuff?”
 
Is the answer to downsize? Join the tiny home movement or the simple living movement? Perhaps. 
 
But the truly enduring and effective shift is our attitude toward our stuff. Too often our self worth is wrapped up in our stuff. Where we live and what type of house we live in, the car we drive and the cell phone we use - even the brand of clothing we wear. 
 
Our stuff makes us into who we are.
 
And that’s a really precarious place to be in - what happens if we can’t afford stuff? What if we lose our stuff? And most importantly, what happens to our stuff when we die? We can’t take it with us.
 
The truth is we all know that life is about much more than stuff. But we get so carried away with it all. 
 
So this week’s Torah portion comes along to help us keep our lives in perspective. 
 
Allow me to explain. In what could perhaps be considered strange irony, this week’s Torah portion is called “vayechi”, meaning “and he lived”; yet the content of the portion surrounds our forefather Jacob's final days, passing and funeral. 
 
It also discusses Joseph’s demise and the promise he extracted from his descendants to bury him in Israel when they ultimately leave Egypt.
 
Considering that the Torah is Divine communication, keeping in mind that the Torah is a guidebook for life, it’s obvious that this is not a mistake. In fact, the name of this portion along with its content provides us with profound insight to living our lives - free of stuff.
 
Our forefathers' lives were defined by values and ideals that are not limited to physical life. Unlike stuff, what defines their lives doesn’t get old, doesn’t need storage space and most importantly, truly never dies.
 
In fact, our sages tell us that “our forefather Jacob never died”. Because his life wasn’t defined by stuff, his life is truly eternal. 
And by adopting his mindset and approach to life, our lives could be too.
 
*** 
 
Once somewhat on the topic, it’s important to note the high value placed on Jewish burial as evidenced in this week’s Torah portion. For various reasons, sometimes economic, it’s become popular to choose cremation instead of burial. It’s crucial to understand how devastating cremation is to the soul and how the underlying values that lead to choosing cremation are contrary to Jewish values and ideals. If this is something you might have been considering, please take a few minutes and read these articles: Why Does Judaism Forbid Cremation? And Cremation or Burial? 
 
The Torah precepts regarding burial over cremation are so significant that this is one of the areas where we are instructed to violate our parents’ direct request rather than cremate them after their passing. If economic concerns are primary, please be certain to contact me as we have funds specifically earmarked to help cover burial costs.

The ladder of life

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As you journey along your merry (or perhaps, miserable) way through life, you’ll find yourself having to navigate obstacles. 
 
And they come in all forms; they could be a big ditch, an unexpected setback, something you have to overcome and navigate across. Other times it may be like a big mountain that looms up in front of you, an intimidating and scary task or responsibility. 
 
A bridge will get you across a chasm; a ladder is necessary to climb up and get over a vertical obstacle. 
 
While they accomplish similar goals, they have very different connotations. A bridge leaves one on the other side but at the same level, a ladder helps one reach a new height. 
 
Our Torah portion this week tells of Jacob leaving home for a new frontier. He is embarking on a new chapter in his life, one that would prove pivotal not only for him but for future generations too.
 
Before he leaves the land of his birth, he stops on what would later become the Temple Mount. He lays down to sleep and has a dream of a ladder reaching from the earth to the heavens. 
 
As with everything shared by the Torah, the Book of Divine Guidance and Instruction, there’s much symbolism and lessons embedded in this narrative.
 
As we go about our life we should consider our journey as one beginning on earth but heading upwards. Constantly on a path of growth and continuously elevating ourselves and those around us. While we may occasionally experience setbacks, our trajectory must be one of growth. 
 
As someone wise once said, either I win or I learn. Even the challenges we face can and must be viewed as part of our upward progression.

The destination is the journey

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Photo by Cara Fuller on Unsplash

We’re so used to being focused on a goal that we don’t appreciate the value in the journey. Focusing on the destination can often be detrimental if we don’t achieve the goal. In addition it sets us up for disappointment when we invariably compare ourselves to others.

 

There’s another way to live and measure success. That’s by thinking of the journey as the destination. Each step along the way is a goal in and of itself - measurable against ourselves. Am I a step ahead of where I was yesterday? Am I just a bit wiser today than I was yesterday? Am I just a little more caring than I was yesterday? Am I just a little more generous than I was yesterday?

As long as I am on a journey, I’m achieving my goal. As long as I am changing, expanding, learning and developing myself I’m achieving my goal. I’m reaching my destination every single day by being mindful of the journey that I am continually traveling.

Our Torah portion alludes to this idea in how it frames the 42 stops our ancestors took on their journey through the desert to Israel. They’re all described as the journey through which we left Egypt. All 42 stops along the way. Obviously there is only one journey from within the Egyptian border to outside the border. After that, while they may be continually distancing themselves from Egypt, they’re not actually leaving Egypt.

Understanding Egypt metaphorically as a constricting and limiting space, - as its Hebrew name, Mitzrayim,implies - we can appreciate the message. Our past accomplishment quickly becomes our new ceiling, our new Egypt. What we achieved yesterday needs to be viewed as good for yesterday but not enough for today. And we can’t settle on today’s accomplishments, tomorrow we have to build on them.

And we don’t have to look outside to measure our success, we measure against ourselves. Staying on the journey is the true destination.

Thank you, for WHAT?!

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I’m not sure why everyone is busy reflecting on the past year right now considering that Rosh Hashanah was close to four months ago…

On a more serious note, it’s easy to reflect on the past year (or two) and feel down rather than uplifted. There’s no getting around the fact that the past two years have been tough on everyone. The incessant cacophony of acrimony and accusations in the media, especially as amplified through social channels, only make matters worse. And looking to the future can be downright frightening for so many…

I was reminded today of a profound message that emerges from the Exodus narrative that’s being studied in the weekly Torah portion nowadays.

One of the famous ethical teachings of our sages is that of “hakarat hatov”, appreciating and recognizing the good. And as with many Talmudic teachings, this one too is anchored in scripture. 

There are in fact many biblical sources where this idea is found, including various Mitzvahs that are rooted in this principle (like honoring one’s parents and bikkurim). Other famous biblical examples include Moses not being the one to implement the first three plagues due to his life having been saved by the water and the earth earlier in his life, and the entire people waiting while Moses’ sister Miriam healed before continuing to travel, in appreciation for her waiting and watching over Moses when he was placed in the basket. 

In addition to the examples above, there are many others that highlight the same value. However, when the Talmud wishes to convey this message, the ethical and moral value of recognizing and appreciating the good, a particularly peculiar example is chosen. 

The Torah limits the ability for certain ancient nations to convert to Judaism. It then highlights some exceptions, including the Egyptians. And the reason for the exception? “You were a sojourner in his (i.e. the Egyptians) land.”

That’s interesting. Last I checked we weren’t treated all that well while in Egypt all those years ago. Yet the Torah lists their “hospitality” as the rationale for the conversion exception vis a vis the Egyptians. What’s going on?!

Consider this. While the experience was none too pleasant to say the least, it was however the formative time for our people. We experienced unprecedented population growth in Egypt, transforming in the process from a large family to an entire nation. 

While the slavery was obviously negative, there were nonetheless some positives to be extracted from the experience. And that’s what the sages are highlighting by pointing to this example as the scriptural example of “hakarat hatov”, appreciating and recognizing the good. 

This idea provides a profound and powerful lesson. While these recent years may have been challenging, we have the ability to choose what about them we highlight. Do we focus on the negative or do we find the positive to highlight?

I’m confident that upon reflection we can all find wonderful experiences and lessons from the past couple years that have enriched us, expanded our horizons and facilitated growth. 

My blessing to you as we transition to a new period in time is that you find the positive in all of your experiences - especially the ones that feel so challenging.


I know who you are but who am I?

sammy-williams-ufgOEVZuHgM-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Sammy Williams on Unsplash 

David was walking downtown and was surprised to meet his long lost friend, Moshe. 

“Moshe! It’s so good to see you!” he exclaimed. “My Moshe, how you’ve changed over the years. I hardly recognized you, the glasses, the gray hair – you even look a little shorter…” 

“Excuse me,” replied the man, “but my name is not Moshe.” 

“What!? You even changed your name!!”

It is not all that uncommon that we mistake one person for another but have you ever mistaken your own identity?

Which reminds me of the fellow with the identity crisis. When he was dressed he would be able to differentiate himself from others by the way he was dressed. He struggled though when he was at the bathhouse and everyone looked more or less the same. 

He finally found a therapist who came up with a solution; he was to tie a red string around his big toe and then he would know that he was the guy with the red string on his toe. 

Everything was going swimmingly until one time he was in the bathhouse and the red string came loose and ended up on someone else’s toe. What to do!?

Finally, he walked over to the fellow and said to him, “Excuse me sir, please help me out. I see the red string on your toe so I know who YOU are. But who am I??”

In all seriousness, I think “mistaken identity” can sometimes be the way to describe many modern Jewish people. We have come to think that Judaism is about caring for global warming and social justice, and we seem to have forgotten the holy mission with which we have been charged.

Being confident in our Jewish identity is likely the single most important element of being Jewish today. 

Just like when our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt, the Torah informs us that it was in the merit of their maintaining a distinct identity, apart from the mainstream Egyptian culture of the time, that they were saved. 

Life is full of turbulence. We can make all the plans we’d like but we can never fully anticipate every possible twist and turn. To navigate life we need to maintain a distinct identity that is privy to the whims of society. This anchors us and guides us, and helps us successfully navigate the challenges we face. 

The good news is that while we live in a physical world, we are really “amphibious creatures” – because we have a wholly spiritual side too, our soul. 

It’s not enough to nourish our physical body, we have to remember our spiritual, G-dly side as well. And until we recognize that side of ourselves and nourish it, we will consistently be mistaken about our own identity.

As Jewish people we have a 3300+ year heritage that has helped generations before us maintain their identity and navigate the challenges in their path. 

It’s time we “find ourselves”. It’s time we re-engage in, and strengthen our connection with, our heritage. And the good news is that we don’t have to look very far to find it, it’s right here within us. 

What do you think? I think it’s time to look inside and find yourself!

Its a false world after all - or is it?

saketh-garuda-SHY-CKpYjrE-unsplash (1).jpgPhoto by Saketh Garuda on Unsplash

It’s been a very confronting week for many of us. An obviously Jewish student was targeted and murdered inside his school and the media ignored it. The police are trying to write it off as a random crime, when it seems pretty certain to have been a hate crime. 

Watching in real time as chaos and acute danger descends on Afghanistan, threatening the lives of millions of innocent people. The political lives of our elected leaders seem to take precedence over the literal lives of so many. 

Add to it the dark ominous skies we’ve been experiencing this week, caused by fires in our virtual backyard. We know people who have evacuated (as I’m sure you do too) and friends of friends whose properties were completely burned down. 

Not to mention all the Covid news, along with the by-now expected acrimony.

It all adds up to a deeply unsettling feeling of uncertainty. Is there any institution that can be trusted? Is there anywhere that we can feel safe?

While this is a somewhat global view, it's often reflected in our personal lives too. And when the people and things that we’ve relied on let us down, it can have ripple effects that are hard to overcome. 

The reality is that it’s time we realize that it’s a “false world”. The motivation behind so much of daily life is twisted by personal benefit and convenience, and not guided by principle or immutable values. 

Coming to this realization can be very uneasy at first (to say the least) but in reality it can lead to a much more liberated existence. Our priorities must be guided by our connection to our “Higher Power”, not by the expectation of others. Our choices must be determined by timeless values, not timely trends. And our decisions must be guided by what’s right, not by what’s expedient. 

And when we do, we’ll come to appreciate a whole different dimension of reality, a deeper and more aligned reality: That our world is, in truth, a garden. That’s how it was created to function and that’s its truest state of existence. The more we live our life in tune with that reality, the more that reality crystallizes in our daily experience too.

It’s certainly true that initially it takes more effort to live life this way, but the payoff is easily worth the investment. We’ll discover deeper friendships and more meaningful experiences. Our life will be filled with value instead of things and despite the chaos around us, we’ll be able to be confident in our mission.

Coming to recognize the “false world”, and it’s deeper “world as G-d’s garden” reality, enables us to build a beautiful, deep and true life. A life that is not easily derailed by events around us; rather, it spreads light, positivity and hope to all with whom we come in contact.

 

Modern Monarchy?

Crown.jpg Photo by Lians Jadan on Unsplash

Let’s face it, while some parts of Jewish observance are warm and fuzzy (think: caring for the sick and the needy, animal welfare and the like), there are other parts of Jewish practice that take more dedication, conviction and commitment (think: Shabbat, Kosher and the like). 

Then there are parts of the Torah which can truly present concern for the thinking Jew today: The ideas and ideals of the Torah that, to our Western mindset, seem outmoded and archaic (to say the least). 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.

In fact, each one is understood in a unique manner and there is much wisdom to be discovered, but they’re beyond the scope of this message. 

Instead I wanted to highlight something from this week’s Torah portion: The Mitzvah to appoint 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. And there is no difference in this instance. You see, there are a 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 ones 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 all that 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?

Feeling inadequate?

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Many of us are afflicted by feelings of inadequacy. Why this is, I’ll have to leave to the psychologists among us. But what to do about it? Allow me to share some wisdom from this week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei.
It’s actually a double portion; the second, Masei, outlines the journeys of the Jewish people from Egypt to the Promised Land. There were a total of 42 stations along the way, where they stopped for varying lengths of time, until they arrived on the border of the future Land of Israel.
In relating this account the Torah employs a peculiar choice of words, “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt,” implying that all the journeys are part of leaving Egypt. Yet in the most literal sense it was only one journey that took them past the borders of Egypt. While not yet in Israel, they had certainly left Egypt.
Why the implication, that obviously doesn’t reflect reality, that all the 42 steps of their journey were part of leaving Egypt? And most importantly, what’s the lesson for us? If it’s included in the Torah there must be a lesson. That’s what the Torah is - guidance for life.
The country Egypt is a specific geographic location; they physically left Egypt when they crossed the border. But Egypt also represents an attitude. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim-מצרים, also means limitations or boundaries. Our role is to leave “Mitzrayim,” to grow beyond the limitations and boundaries that confined and limited us until this point.
And this process is not a one time effort - it is ongoing. When we grow beyond a particular limitation, that soon becomes our new normal and it’s time once again to grow and develop - beyond our new reality.
And if you’re feeling inadequate? Looking at the next person’s accomplishments and realizing how distant you are from them? The fact that there are 42 stops along the way to the Holy Land is an important reminder. G-d never intended the route from Egypt to Israel to take one step; it’s a journey that is made of many small steps along the way.
Each person has their particular set of circumstances, their particular “Mitzrayim” personal limitations, to grow beyond. And each person has their own achievements to measure against. Have you taken a step forward? That’s what counts!
And truth be told, if you’ve perhaps taken a step backward, that is part of the journey too. Look in the Torah narrative of the 42 journeys and you will find some stops where rebellion and sin took place, yet they are counted among the steps leading to the Holy Land.
The main thing is to keep on going and keep on growing.


 

Are We Too Far Ahead?

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Leadership is a tricky role; by definition, one is not a leader if they aren’t out in front and leading. However, a leader also has to know his or her constituents - it wouldn’t help if the leader is so far ahead that they end up all alone. They would no longer be leaders in that circumstance either. In other words, one could be an ineffectual leader either because they’re not leading or because they’re leading by too much.
This is true about innovation too - there are many amazing technology companies that failed early on, only to be followed by another company, providing virtually the same service or platform that becomes wildly successful. It’s not because the idea was bad - ultimately it was highly successful - it’s because the timing was off. They were too early and the market wasn’t ready for it yet.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, OBM, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, explains that this is exactly what Moses is highlighting when asking G-d to choose his successor (as discussed in this week’s Torah Portion). 
Moses asks G-d to appoint a leader who “will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in.” The verse seems to repeat itself, that is until you look a little closer: “will go forth before them and come before them,” this leader needs to lead. But this leader needs to also ensure that the people are following “who will lead them out and bring them in.”
Great leaders push people beyond their perceived limits. But great leaders can also provoke some resentment when people aren’t ready to follow.
The Jewish people have been collectively charged by G-d to lead the world to a better place. To make this world more in tune with the Divine, until we usher in the era of Moshiach and our world will permanently be transformed to goodness.
We’ve been at this work for a few thousand years, and in the interim it’s provoked the enmity of many an antisemite. The fact that there is antisemitism shows us that we’re accomplishing something. The fact that it has far, far less traction than it once did means that we’ve almost accomplished our goal.
We’re not too far ahead, the world is ready. In fact, more people today than ever before are searching for depth and meaning. We have the tools of elevating and refining this world and we need to share them. 
Torah provides guidance and perspective, we need to study it and be sure to share what we learn with others. We’ve been tasked with a mission; it’s our responsibility to lead. When we do, the world will be all the better for it.

 

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