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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.

Where do you fit in?

I’ve heard so often from people that they don’t have any connection to Judaism, that they are not knowledgeable in Torah nor are they particularly observant. They therefore feel like they don’t belong and hesitate to participate. Does this sound familiar? Have you or someone you know thought along these lines?

I’d like to tell you a story about a chassid who was sent by the Previous Rebbe, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, to visit Jews in outlying communities and inspire them in the observance of the mitzvot. When he returned to the Rebbe, he told him that the Jews he visited had asked him the purpose of his trip, and he had answered them using the following analogy. In previous generations, there were traveling scribes who would journey from community to community, checking the Torah scrolls and correcting any cracked or faded letters.

“Every Jew is like a Torah scroll,” the chassid explained to the local people. “But sometimes some of its ‘letters’ a mitzvah here or a mitzvah there become faded. My mission is to restore the letters.”

The Previous Rebbe appreciated the analogy, but told the chassid that it was not entirely appropriate. “The letters of a Torah scroll and its parchment are two separate entities. Therefore when a letter fades, its restoration can be considered as fashioning a new entity. A Jew’s relationship with his/her heritage is, by contrast, a fundamental part of his/her being. It is like the letters of the Ten Commandments that were carved into two tablets of stone; once carved the letters became part of the tablet itself.

“They may become filled with other substances or covered with dust to the point that they are not seen, but the letters are still intact. All that is necessary is that they be uncovered. One does not have to create anything new.”

Please know, no matter your level of knowledge or observance, a Jew is a Jew! You are as Jewish as Moses! Feel welcome to come and claim your stake in your heritage.

Is G-d Religious?

During the last 37 days of Moses’ life he communicated to the Jewish people his instructions for their future. They were about to enter the Land of Israel and their lives were going to change radically. Among the experiences and lessons that Moses recounts are the Ten Commandments, found in the portion that is read tomorrow in synagogues the world over.

I thought it would be apropos to share this short insight written by Rabbi Simon Jacobson of the Meaningful Life Center in New York. Please take a moment to read it; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Is G-d Religious? The polls are mixed on that count. Recent surveys show that as much as 80-90% of Americans will say that they believe in G-d, but 40-50% will say they do not practice a religion.

Indeed, if G-d is all-powerful and infinite, and religion is a set of laws and rituals and a list of things that one must or must not do, it would seem that G-d could hardly be described as "religious." Nor would it seem that being religious will bring a person closer to G-d. If G-d transcends all limitation and definition, why would the way to relate to G-d be to impose further restriction and definition on our already finite and constricted lives?

Yet this paradox is not confined to the religious-spiritual aspect of the human experience. Throughout the ages, whenever man has endeavored to escape the bounds of the mundane and the everyday, he did so by submitting to a structured, even rigid, code of behavior.

My favorite example for this is the discipline of music. There are just so many musical notes on the scale, and no one--not even the greatest musician--can create additional notes or subtract any. Anyone who wishes to play or compose music must conform to this absolute, immutable system.

And yet, by submitting to this framework, the musician will create a piece of music that touches the deepest place in a person’s heart---a place that cannot be described, much less be defined. By using this very precise, mathematical formula, the musician will create something that transports the listener to a place high above the confines and fetters of everyday life, high above the strictures of physics and mathematics.

Imagine, then, a musical discipline whose laws are dictated by the inventor and creator of life---by the one who has intimate knowledge of life's every strength and every vulnerability, of its every potential and its every sensitivity.

The only question remaining is: but why so many laws? Why must this discipline dictate how we are to wake and how we are to sleep, and virtually everything in between?

Because life itself, in all its infinite complexity, is our instrument of connection with G-d. Every "scale" on its "range" must be exploited to achieve the optimum connection.

Music being our metaphor, we cannot but quote the famous anecdote in which Archduke Ferdinand of Austria says to Mozart, "Beautiful music, but far too many notes." To which the composer replied, "Yes, your majesty, but not one more than necessary."

Laugh at your circumstances!

Go ahead, laugh at your circumstances!

Do you ever find yourself in a really tough situation and suddenly you sit back and laugh? I didn't think so. It's not a common occurrence. But, maybe it's a practice we ought to adopt. Try this; the next time things are really going rough, you are frustrated with G-d that He is putting you through a seemingly overpowering challenge; you are ready to pull the hair out of your head... Stop! Sit back with a cup of cold lemonade in your hand, and… LAUGH! Laugh at the situation; laugh at how one day you'll look back and see how overwhelmed you were by the circumstances and how you thought it would never work out… and it did. Or laugh at how one day you'll realize that this challenge was actually a tremendous blessing to help you get to a place you didn't even know you had the potential to reach. Oh, and the more you laugh the better you will deal with the situation.

How do I know this? For that please bring your lemonade onto the porch and I'll tell you a story.

It was sometime after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. (This Tuesday is Tisha B’av, the day we commemorate the destruction of the Temple). Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues were walking toward Jerusalem and had arrived at Mt. Scopus. There, below, they saw the site of the destroyed Temple.

They tore their clothing in mourning.

Later, as they approached the actual site of the Temple, they witnessed a terribly distressing sight – they saw a fox emerging from the place where the Holy of Holies had stood.

The Rabbis reacted with weeping… but Rabbi Akiva began to laugh.

The surprised Rabbi's turned to Rabbi Akiva and asked incredulously, "Why is it that you laugh?" To which he responded, "Why is it that you cry?" They answered, "For the Torah states that Jerusalem will be like a plowed field." To which Rabbi Akiva said, "It is precisely for that reason that I laugh. For I see that just as the prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction has come to pass, so too the prophecy of its rebuilding will come to pass."

Rabbi Akiva was not belittling the destruction; rather he was calling on a deep, inner strength - a profound conviction and faith in G-d - that in time G-d's master plan will be revealed.

When we are facing challenge the normal thing is to tear our clothing and cry. Why G-d? Why me? Why this? And that's ok (after all even Rabbi Akiva tore his clothing). But after you are done crying and fretting, step back and call on your inner faith and confidence. This is the faith and confidence that G-d is a good G-d that wants only the best for us; that our situation is really a blessing in disguise and in time it will be revealed. And that until that time, our strong faith alone is reason enough to celebrate; the fact that we have a G-d that loves us and cares for us and wants to help us to greater heights.

Enjoy your lemonade and have a great weekend.

Shabbat shalom!!

What do YOU see in the mirror?

The story is told of a man named Abraham who was a simple, honest, hard working man. He owned a small store and made enough of a living to support his family. He excelled in one area; he was an extremely giving and hospitable individual. His home was open to all; poor neighbors would stop by for a meal or some financial assistance and travelers would be certain to find a comfortable bed and a delicious meal. He was always looking out for the welfare of his fellow.

One time he was honored to host an extraordinary guest; a wise and holy Rebbe who was passing through town. The Rebbe was impressed by Abraham’s hospitality and blessed him with wealth.
Little did Abraham realize the challenges that come with being wealthy. As he became more absorbed in his business deals and his ever-expanding and increasingly profitable business affairs, he tended to spend less time helping others.

One day the Rebbe visited town and after meeting Abraham, he realized the change that had overcome him. The Rebbe asked to meet with Abraham at his home. Once there, the Rebbe took Abraham to the window and told him to look out to the street. The Rebbe asked him many questions about the passer-by and Abraham recognizing his neighbors identified them to the Rebbe. “That woman is a poor widow with young children… that’s the water carrier – he’s getting old and soon will not be able to continue his line of work… and that’s the tailor who although a pious and hardworking man can’t seem to make ends meet…”

Then the Rebbe led Abraham over to the large, ornate mirror hanging over the fire place. “What do you see, Abraham?" asked the Rebbe. “Why, I see myself,” answered a surprised Abraham.

“Both the window and the mirror are made of glass, are they not? Why is it," asked the Rebbe, “that when you look through the window you see others but when you look in the mirror you see yourself?"

Abraham, not understanding what the Rebbe was asking, explained, “The glass is transparent, the light goes through the glass and you can see what is on the other side. However the mirror, although also made of glass, is coated with silver on one side causing the light to reflect. Therefore the mirror only reflects what is looking into it.”

“I see,” said the Rebbe, “when the glass is clear you can see others, but when coated in silver, you can see only yourself…”

Suddenly Abraham understood the Rebbe’s message. So long that he was without the silver coating - before he became wealthy - he had been able to see others and their plight and was moved to help them in any way he could. But since he had been blessed with wealth – “coated in silver” – he was only able to see himself.

That night Abraham scraped the silver coating off one of the corners of the mirror, to serve as a constant reminder to remember others.

What do YOU see in the mirror?

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