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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.

Live from New York!

This past Tuesday, my family and I made the long trek to New York. Flying to New York with five kids in tow is quite something and although I thought the trip went pretty smoothly, I’m not sure everyone else did…Interestingly enough, one of the stewards came from a really large family – 18 children! (He also turned out to be Jewish, but that’s a separate story…)

As always, I like to learn from my various experiences, and from flying there are many lessons to be learned. But one thought in particular struck me: Before a flight even takes off, the pilot already has the entire flight plan in hand. The route is previously decided and the airport where the plane will land is scheduled and ready for the flight’s arrival. Imagine if a plane would take off without a flight plan. It would be a recipe for disaster, liable to crash at any time and unable to land without causing confusion.

We often get dragged down by the challenges that we experience. All too often we can lose sight of the greater picture. This is a common experience and a solution is all too ordinary: we get a book, take a seminar or discuss the matter with a mentor. And then – we have the solution! We are inspired and motivated; we are ready to face our challenges head on! But then, we land. And the inspiration is gone, the motivation is gone and we are back to where we started.

When we allow ourselves to fly, to get inspired, we must first plot our course; what do I need to work on? What do I want to get from this? How will I incorporate this inspiration in my life? At which point will I begin and what will be my next step?

Like so many others I know,  I’m sure you have had the thought, “I should really be a bit more Jewishly involved. My family should really experience more Judaism in their life.” What usually happens next? This momentary inspiration fades away and nothing has changed. If we would plan our course, if we choose one particular area of Jewish life to introduce or strengthen, then it would have a lasting effect.

Looking for specific suggestions? Please feel free to contact me to discuss some ideas (when I get back from New York…).

Introduce yourself!

A Jew and an army officer happened to be sharing a room in a crowded inn. In order to get to his train on time, the Jew was awakened by the innkeeper well before dawn. Dressing silently and quickly in the dark while hoping to avoid waking the irritable officer, the Jew accidentally put on the officers uniform. As he rushed out to the train station, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and saw that he was wearing the officer’s uniform. “That foolish innkeeper!" he thought, "He woke up the officer instead of me!”

So often, like the Jew in the story, we define ourselves - and others - by external factors. You are no doubt familiar with this scenario: you are at a party with your friend and someone that you don’t recognize walks in. You turn to your friend and ask, “Who is that?” to which they reply, “That’s Jay, or Sharon, or Ben, or Nancy” or whoever. To which you invariably respond, “Oh, what does s/he do?” We tend to identify someone based on their job, their education or their hobbies. We even introduce ourselves based on similar external factors.

Many factors will influence our life experience: e.g. where we live and where we work will influence who we meet and interact with on a regular basis; wealth or lack of it, could affect our self-confidence, our habits could affect our sense of self-worth, our relationships and so on.

But all of these aspects only reflect our current circumstances, not who we truly are, and what we can accomplish. In truth, looking at ourselves through the lens of our current stage, can even be a hindrance for growth.

In order to gain a true perspective of ourselves, and to lay the groundwork for real personal growth, we have to recognize the truly limitless potential that we have. This infinite potential stems from our soul, which is unlimited.

This is true also in our interaction with others. In order to recognize the infinite value in every single individual, we have to recognize the fact that they have a soul. We need to come to appreciate them for their essence, not their accomplishments or lack thereof.

Focus like a laser beam!

Celebrate Shavuot? What’s there to celebrate?

That’s the reaction I heard from some over the past week. You mean you’re asking me to celebrate the anniversary of the giving of the Torah? An event that limits my experience of this world; tells me when I can work and when I can’t; tells me what I can eat and what I can’t; makes me fast on Yom Kippur? Why should I celebrate these limitations?

Well, that’s one way to look at it.

On Shavuot, I celebrate the meaning that Torah provides in my life. I celebrate the structure and value the Torah provides. And I celebrate the sense of fulfillment and purpose that comes with it.

And yes, these advantages come with certain limitations. The best job will always be accomplished by someone who has discipline and focus; a successful person knows that they must keep a schedule and make deadlines. Limitations are not negative; in fact they bring out the best within us.

A great example of the benefits that come with limitation is from light. The nature of light is that as it travels from its source, it scatters and dissipates thereby weakening its effect. One of the great technological advances of recent history is the laser beam. It concentrates the lights rays in a straight line, thus enabling its use at great distance from its point of origin.

On the surface, any code of behavior would seem to limit and restrict us and therefore diminish our experience of the world. But in truth, a life without boundaries, a life without parameters, soon gets lost in the diverse and incongruous universe that we inhabit. Such a life will ultimately be devoid of the possibility to contribute.

So, is Torah limiting? No, it’s liberating! And that’s a reason to celebrate!

Why won't the Vaca Valedictorian read her speech?

Last week I shared with you the story of Capt. Hank Webb (I had called him Harry but his daughter corrected me) and his dedication to his belief and practices while serving in Vietnam. (You can read that story here). I was inspired by his dedication and commitment to stand up for his convictions and how it all turned out in his favor.

Today I am inspired by a young high school senior right here in Vacaville. For the first time in Vacaville’s history, a valedictorian will not be reading her speech but recording it in advance to be played at the graduation.

Carolyn Fine, a Vacaville High School Student, was chosen as valedictorian for the graduation which will take place next week on June 9th, coinciding this year with 2nd day of the holiday of Shavuot.   Shavout commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jews at Mt. Sinai 3323 years ago. Due to the sanctity of this day, Judaism prohibits certain mundane acts, one of which is the use of a microphone. (Read the whole story here).

I’m sure that quietly accepting the opportunity and promising to herself to observe all future holidays would have been much easier. But she decided to stand up for what she believed and told the school that she would not be able to accept the honor to speak at the graduation. 

In the end, out of respect for her Jewish observance, the faculty of Vaca High has accommodated her by recording her speech in advance.

To me this story demonstrates once again, that when we remain steadfast in our belief, it garners respect not scorn.  And if it is possible in Vacaville, its possible anywhere!!

The holiday of Shavuot is observed this year from Tuesday (June 7th) evening until Thursday (June 9th) nightfall (approximately 9:15 pm). Please join us at our Shavuot events, scroll down for more details.

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