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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.

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This inspired me - what inspires you?

Coffee mug - begin.jpg Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

It’s been a while since I’ve been astonished to the point of being speechless. Last night was one of those times. 

We had the privilege of hearing a first hand story of miracles from my friend Rabbi Elie Estrin. His son, Nissi, was diagnosed in utero with multiple heart defects and they were told he would never survive more than a few hours. 

Fast forward four+ years and Nissi is a happy and lively, mischief-loving four year old. Yes, he has had multiple major surgeries and procedures; yes, he is physically limited in some ways but he is alive and bringing much joy to many. 

The presentation raised many fundamental matters; trust in G-d, the limitations of doctors’ expertise and above all the value of life.

It’s not unusual to take life for granted; we wake up in the morning and we go about our day with nary a thought about how amazing it is that we are alive. Hearing the story last night reminded me of the value of each and every life, beginning with my own life.

Don’t get me wrong, we all value life and appreciate the time that we have. But do we truly make an effort to ensure that our time here is well spent? That the investment of resources in our life is justified by the return?

I know myself that there is always room for growth and improvement. And today is just the day to consider it. You see, today is called the “Second Passover”.

The “Second Passover” came about due to a group of people who had missed the original opportunity to bring the Passover sacrifice and begged for another chance. Their entreaties resulted in a holiday added to the Jewish calendar, the “Second Passover”.

Nowadays the holiday is more symbolic than observed since we don’t have the ability to offer sacrifices, however the meaning of the day is deeply significant.

The “Second Passover” reminds us that it is never too late - no matter the choices we’ve made until now, no matter the life we’ve chosen for ourselves - we always have the opportunity to choose differently. 

There are often things that upon reflection we wish we could have done differently, choices that we could have decided differently. And many times those reflections conclude with resignation and acceptance of the status quo.

Today is a reminder that we should never be satisfied with the status quo just because that is what we’ve been familiar with until now.

The difficulty is the effort required to change. For me, hearing stories like the one we heard last night provides a boost and serves as inspiration to gather the internal resources needed to make the necessary change. 

What inspires you to make change? Take a minute and think about it.

Tweeting

Birds tweet.jpg Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

When the Torah portion converges with current events, you absolutely know that every rabbi is going to discuss it. This week’s Torah portion discusses quarantine - yes, it’s really true, check it up for yourself. 

But in all honesty there’s something else that struck me about the theme of this week’s Torah portion: The power of words. 

While the actual discussion in the portion doesn’t take place today - no one is being affiliated with spiritual ailments that physically manifest the way it’s described in the portion. Nor are we offering sacrifices as part of the process of refinement. That doesn’t mean we can’t glean guidance from the message - on the contrary, it brings it into greater focus. 

Briefly, the portion describes an instance where someone who was engaged in negative speech patterns would be affiliated with a particular skin disease. This would render them impure and would require extended sequestration and quarantine. 

Once the disease had cleared, an indication of the spiritual rectification accomplished by the individual, a peculiar ritual would take place as part of their refinement process. The Torah describes that the Kohen would take two birds (among other items), slaughter one and send the other out into the field. 

The commentaries explain that birds - known to tweet long before humans ever used Twitter - were a reminder that speech shouldn’t be used mindlessly. A person should think before speaking, not simply tweet excessively like a bird.

Why then were there two birds? And why was one slaughtered and the other set free?

Because there are two types of speech: negative, destructive speech and positive, constructive speech. 

Both are extremely powerful and far reaching. Both, once expressed, cannot be taken back. One should be “slaughtered” and removed. The other should be set free, into the field.

Nowadays the power of speech is even more relevant. We can use it to divide, deride and degrade. Or we can use it to unite, elevate and embrace.

Instead of taking to social media to rant about one thing or another, perhaps a better use of our phone and our time is to call someone and check in to see how they’re holding up. Never underestimate the power of speech - especially when employed to bring a smile to someone’s face and warmth to their soul.

Are you feeling inspired nowadays?

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Are you feeling inspired nowadays? I often don’t feel terribly inspired myself. 

I know, Passover just ended and I should be inspired by the message of freedom that it contains. Maybe I didn’t connect with it as much due to the current circumstances?

I know, we just began the second week of Sefirat HaOmer; the personal spiritual refinement program that leads to Shavuot. But I’m not sure I’m motivated to work on my spiritual refinement; the Coronavirus seems too distracting.

I can’t connect with people the way I’m used to; I can’t run our services and classes the way that I’m used to; I can’t even workout or take the kids to the park the way that I’m used to. Maybe that’s what’s derailing me?

One thing I know - if I’m expecting circumstances to change before I change my life, I’ll be stuck in a perpetual rut. 

Yes, circumstances have changed and we’ve all needed to make adjustments that are not familiar. But we can’t allow ourselves the comfort of shirking our personal responsibility due to these changes. 

We should acknowledge the changes, recognize the difficulties they might present and then, move forward. Stagnation is unhealthy; physically as well as spiritually. The best antidote for a lack of inspiration is to take a step forward. 

Do something, anything really, rather than just sitting and bemoaning the circumstances.

One step in the right direction is so powerful. It changes our state of being to one of forward motion, however insignificant it might seem. And it helps us channel the infinite power of our soul. 

This time is a true gift, it’s a push to each of us to develop and strengthen our internal selves. It’s an opportunity to prioritize what’s important to us based on our priorities, not just on what is expected from us by others. 

Let’s each take a step in the direction of growth.

It's Not About You

Bench under tree1.jpg Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Whether it’s nature or nurture, we tend to consider everything from the standpoint of our personal benefit. We engage in activities that make us feel good and refrain from things that don’t. Whether it’s simply physically pleasurable experiences or experiences that make us feel good from a moral standpoint, it’s all about what makes us feel good.

The issue is that if our barometer of right and wrong is based on our personal experience, we are obviously going to be extremely biased in our assessment. We cannot be honest arbiters if we have so much at stake.

Does that mean that we have to live a repressed life? Never feeling satisfaction and enjoyment from life? Constantly looking to avoid any personal benefit? That certainly doesn’t sound very attractive.

The truth is that our deepest satisfaction in life, our truest expression of self and our most profound connection to G-d, all hinge on abandoning this modern day measurement of value. We can never achieve true satisfaction when we focus on ourselves and our “feeling good” as the determining factor in our lives.

Life is not about what we need, it’s about what we are needed for. 

When our life is focused on our responsibility - to G-d and to others - rather than on ourselves, we are living up to our purpose of being and we can be honest about determining right from wrong. The ironic thing is that when we do focus on what we’re needed for, we actually gain personal satisfaction too.

 

TBU??

Donkey (2).jpg Photo by Daniel Burka on Unsplash 

When we read about Moses embarking on his historic Exodus mission, the Torah includes a seemingly random and irrelevant detail: he placed his family on a donkey. At first glance it seems like this may be a classic example of TBU - true but useless - information. What’s the relevance in knowing his family’s mode of transportation?

Strangely enough, the Torah doesn’t mention many seemingly central stories of our forefathers; they’re only discoverable by studying the Midrash and other sources. But this donkey is mentioned?

 

Taking into account a fundamental principle of Torah study that every detail in Torah is instructional, (as implied by its name - Torah meaning instruction), it only serves to create more confusion. The Torah is trying to communicate something by mentioning this detail - what could it possibly be? How is a donkey key to the Torah’s Exodus message? Or any message for that matter?

To thicken the plot even more - this donkey is described as The Donkey, i.e. the known and recognized donkey. A known donkey? A particular donkey?

When describing the final test that our forefather Abraham underwent, the Torah also mentions a donkey. And it gets even more strange: Moshiach, the ultimate redeemer who will usher in the utopian era of redemption, is described as arriving riding on a donkey. 

Is that The Donkey that Moses used to transport his family? What’s with this donkey that it keeps appearing??

With minimal investigation one can see a slight difference too - Abraham used his donkey as a mode of transportation for his supplies. In Moses’ case, he used the donkey to transport his family. And Moshiach himself will be riding on the donkey.

There’s an insightful and instructional message embedded in this distinctly and Divinely destined donkey. And in truth it doesn’t necessarily have to do with an actual donkey at all. The Hebrew word for donkey, chamor (חמור), uses the very same letters as the word chomer (חומר), meaning tangible, physical, matter.

Our role in this world is to elevate the physicality and corporeality of matter and transform it into something that displays the Divine. In other words, our world in its current state conceals the G-dly life-force that causes it to exist. Our role is to use the physical world for holy work, thereby elevating it and transforming it to holiness.

This work began with Abraham, in his time the “donkey”, i.e. the physical matter of the world, was only able to be used to transport tools and supplies. It wasn’t yet ready to be used for anything higher. By the time Moses was on the scene, the world had been refined to the extent that he could place his family on the donkey. 

Moshiach’s arrival will mark the completion of this process, that’s why Moshaich himself will ride on the donkey. 

Turns out that this donkey detail is much more than a passing reference to an ancient mode of transportation, it’s an insight into our very purpose in life: To transform and elevate the very physical nature of the world we inhabit.

And you thought this detail was simply TBU? Oh no - that’s never the case in the Torah!

 

Border Control

Border wall.jpg Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash 

Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with someone who works for the CBP, Customs and Border Protection, department within DHS. Over the years borders seem to have become a political issue - don’t worry, we’re not going to discuss politics today. But we are going to consider the concept of borders.

Many argue that borders are simply a social construct designed to divide and discriminate. They say that borders are unnatural and unnecessary and we’d be better off without them.

Without going in to the various sides of the political discussions, I’d contend that in fact the concept of borders is built into our very existence.

Think about it; there are natural, clearly defined and enforced (beyond our control, I might add) borders in our daily life. Take time. That’s a very clearly defined border. Today cannot be yesterday or tomorrow. Place, too - if you’re in California, you cannot simultaneously be in New York.

Borders are so much a part of our lives that we don’t even notice them. Night and day, male and female, the list goes on and on.

While these borders don’t depend on our involvement, they simply exist whether we like it or not. There are many borders that should be in our lives, and that do depend on our creating and enforcing them.

Often we need to enforce our personal borders; certain things simply don’t belong in our life. We each have the authority and agency to choose what to include in our lives and what not. Just because it’s out there, doesn’t mean it’s for us.

In addition to dividing from the outside, a border creates the space to create something within it too. This is true in our lives that when we don’t enforce our personal borders, we lose the ability to develop our personal identity. Enforcing our personal borders, choosing what to include in our lives and what not, provides us with the space to grow and become a true human being, living in tune with our soul.

News Year's Frustration

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Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash 

Have you found this week to be frustrating? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. So many people have all sorts of admittedly irrational high hopes for this time of year. Somehow they’re convinced that somehow everything would suddenly change due to being in a new calendar year.

Of course overnight change doesn’t get any easier; whether it’s a random night of the year or a night when we turn the page to a new year. Change remains hard. Life remains laden with the same baggage as before and it seems that our path is strewn with the same things that bogged us down before.

Is there any solution to this endless treadmill of life? Or are we destined to endlessly repeat the narratives of the past? How can we redirect this cycle?

There is a fascinating understanding of the narrative of Judah meeting his long lost brother Joseph described in this week’s Torah portion. Our portion begins with the words, “Then Judah approached him (Joseph).” 

Judah and Joseph are understood as representing two world views, two approaches with regards to how to engage the physical world we inhabit. Joseph was viceroy of the superpower of the time, Egypt. Joseph represents engagement with the world, with the intention of improving and elevating it. Judah, whose very name means submission to G-d, represents a complete dedication to G-d; conscientiously avoiding engagement with the surrounding physical environment.

Each mode has a strength and weakness. While Joseph has more chance of positively influencing the world, his mode of engagement also poses risk of being distracted and derailed by the concealment of the physical world. While Judah has less chance of being distracted or diverted by the world, his mode is less likely to elevate the world.

While they generally would represent two opposing worldviews, in this week’s portion, Judah approaches Joseph; they engage with each other. The secret to true success in life is embedded here in this first verse describing this historic meeting of the two brothers.

Life is heavy, it wears us down. Habits are difficult to break and it’s easy to get disillusioned. In order to successfully navigate our physical lives we need to be engaged spiritually as well. Judah approaching Joseph informs us regarding our attitude toward our physical lives; while we live physical lives, we need to ensure that we engage with and nourish our spiritual side. In fact, it can be argued that the spiritual side is even more important.

This is the secret to overnight change, whether tied to a significant date on the calendar or any other day of the year. Engage with your soul, tap into the spiritual and G-dly; this is the secret to incorporating significant and lasting change.

The Most Important Moment in History

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Photo by Dario Veronesi on Unsplash

When, in your opinion, was the most important moment in history? Would it be the Revelation at Mount Sinai? Or perhaps the advent of the printing press? Or maybe you would consider the introduction of nuclear energy to be the most significant moment in history.

 

To me it seems that Jewish teachings would regard the present moment as being the most significant moment ever. 

Yes, there were major turning points in history. Yes, they were major characters who played pivotal roles in shaping the world we live in today. However, as far as we personally are concerned, the most significant moment is right now. And the most significant choice is the one I will make right now.

We cannot change the past, but we can shape the future. If we get stuck in the past, if we think of the past to be more significant than the present, then we are giving up the opportunity to shape the future.

And if there is anything that history teaches us it should be to never give up an opportunity that comes our way.

The past may be filled with painful experiences, on a collective basis that is certainly the case. History is replete with accounts of mayhem and murder; pain and suffering seem to be the only constants in human history.

However this should just serve as greater impetus, it should motivate us to ensure that the future is not just more of the same.

We can gain our inspiration from Abraham. Our Torah portion this week begins with the narrative of arguably the single most influential individual in human history by describing his leaving behind his past. G-d tells Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s household, in order to journey to a “land that I will show you”.

In order to positively influence the people around him, and future generations, Abraham had to leave behind his previous influences. He had to leave behind his previous comforts and  his previous negative experiences too.

Abraham focused on the future. He did not allow himself to be discouraged by the fact that he was the only individual promoting monotheism. Today, the vast majority of human beings consider themselves to be monotheists.

We should never allow ourselves the comfort and complacency of our supposed inability to influence the world. 

Focus on the past, be distracted by history, notice negative trends and attitudes? Sure, we will be stuck repeating the same patterns. Focus on the potential for the future, the world that G-d intended for our universe to become, and there is nothing that can stop us from making it happen.

Get out of your way

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We each face huge obstacles to growth; we make an effort to change and we are stymied time and again. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we also hold the key to overcoming this obstacle. 

You see, our biggest obstacle to growth is also the one which is most in our control. Yes, that’s correct, we ourselves are our own biggest obstacle to growth. 

How often do you hear people say things like “I’m not a morning person” or that’s me “I always get lost”, or “I’m so bad with names”? Perhaps you tell similar tall tales to yourself as well? 

One of the most common responses I receive when encouraging additional mitzvah observance or Torah study is, “but Rabbi, I’m not religious”.

Let’s take a moment to understand what is going on here. Instead of working on myself to be able to get up and be ready in the morning, I give myself a preemptive built-in excuse: “I’m not a morning person”. Instead of making the effort to learn the directions or remember the name, I excused myself for failing - before I even made the effort. In fact, my excuse is so powerful that it allows me to fail without even attempting to make an effort!

And instead of learning and observing what I can, I define myself as non-religious and therefore “unable” to do anything Jewish.

The first step of positive growth is to allow ourselves to make the effort to grow. To take away our own built-in excuses and mentally re-frame the effort as something that we can work on achieving. 

“I struggle with getting started in the morning, I’d love to work out how to start the day on a better foot”; “I need to take a little more time to understand the directions so that I don’t get lost”; “Please remind me your name, if I use your name a few more times it will help me remember it”. “Rabbi, I haven’t been observant and I don’t know much but I’m always willing to learn new things”.

These sorts of responses remove our self imposed limitations and provide the context for growth. This doesn’t mean it comes easy; this means it can be done.

Everyone is familiar with Rosh Hashanah being the beginning of the New Year - but it’s also the close of the previous year too. Embedded in the observances of the day is the message that the past is exactly that - passed. It does not define our future. The new year is brought about by an entirely new Divine energy that creates and animates our universe - and enables us to emulate it by renewing ourselves.

This Rosh Hashanah make sure to delete the old tracks that have been playing in your head. Entirely delete the tracks that have held you back and blocked your path. With the beginning of the new year, start playing new tracks in your head - ones that are empowering and enlivening. Only play the tracks that encourage you and push you forward.

 

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.

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