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.

Hurricanes and Earthquakes

“Aren’t you worried about earthquakes?” some friends asked me when I moved from New York to California four years ago. Well since I’ve been here I haven’t felt one yet, but this week there was a 5.9 magnitude earthquake on the East Coast.

And as I type this email, Hurricane Irene is heading for the East Coast, probably passing through New York City. All the news outlets are quick to point out the rarity of hurricanes in the north east.

What should we make of it – earthquakes and hurricanes in unexpected places? Unlike some who assume to know the reason G-d made these things happen, I don’t suppose to know G-d's plans and I suggest that you dismiss those who claim that they do. However, we can and should learn a practical lesson from all that we experience.

My first thoughts when hearing this type of news is that it’s G-d's way of reminding us that He’s still here. And no matter how much we understand about this world and can accurately predict, there’s a force that is not limited. It’s greater than any computer model and is not restricted by rules, such as “earthquakes happen in California”.

This coming week we begin the Jewish month of Elul, which leads up to the High Holidays. It is a month in which G-d is accessible to all. The parable is given of the king who visits the simple workers in the field and makes it possible for them to speak with the king. It is an appropriate time to remind ourselves of G-ds relevance in our lives and more importantly, it’s an excellent time to add a mitzvah.

Don't change your life!


August 19th 1991, twenty years ago today: The Crown Heights Riots - referred to as the most serious anti-Semitic incident in American history. The tardy response by then mayor of New York David Dinkins led to the election of Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

(Mayor Giuliani first earned my respect in 1995 when he expelled the accursed terrorist Yasir Arafat from the Lincoln Center. The White House condemned him for it but he responded with real moral clarity, a rarity among politicians, calling Arafat a murderer and terrorist saying, "I would not invite Yasir Arafat to anything, anywhere, anytime, anyplace.")

When I visited New York in 1989, I was struck by the excessive graffiti and the brazen crime. I clearly remember walking with my father in Manhattan and watching as a man chased his assailant screaming, “Stop him! He has my wallet!”

Mayor Giuliani initiated a successful crackdown on crime that eventually led to New York City becoming one of the safest big cities in the country. Together with his Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton (who was recently brought in by the UK to help them get control of crime there) he implemented an aggressive crime prevention and deterrent strategy based on the “broken windows” theory. This involved crackdowns on relatively minor offenses such as graffiti, turnstile jumping and aggressive panhandling by "squeegee men". The reasoning is that when graffiti and petty crime is allowed to continue unchecked, it creates a chaotic environment that leads to serious crime. Conversely cracking down on the seemingly insignificant petty crimes, creates an environment that allows for law abiding citizens to feel comfortable and makes crime appear out of place and unwelcome.

Pirkei Avot, the ethical guidebook bequeathed to us by our sages, teaches (4:2) “Ben Azzai would say: Run to pursue a minor mitzvah, and flee from a transgression. For a mitzvah brings another mitzvah, and a transgression brings another transgression.” Studying this statement this past week, it struck me that the sages are teaching us to employ the “broken windows” theory in our own lives.

Perhaps we can paraphrase the above statement as follows. “Ben Azzai would say: Run to pursue a minor mitzvah, and flee from a transgression. For a mitzvah creates the proper environment, paving the way for another mitzvah. A transgression creates a negative environment, paving the way for another transgression.”

My message to you this week is – don’t change your life, don’t stop how you currently live and throw yourself head first into Judaism. That’s not you, you’re not there yet, it won’t last. Rather, add one mitzvah and create the environment for another.

Does life have a purpose?

Does life have a purpose?

Well, it depends. If this universe exists just by chance, an arbitrary encounter of random atoms colliding, then no. Because chance has no purpose.

But if this universe is not by chance and it has a creator, then this creator can tell us why the world was created and what its purpose is.

Let’s not confuse purpose with meaning. Meaning can be found in many ways but the purpose of life, its raison d’être, is only one. I have a shoe buffing machine in my room and it serves as a hat stand. Is that its purpose? No, I have found meaning, perhaps, for it to remain in my room. The purpose of a treadmill is exercise but many will find meaning using it as a clothes hanging device. Ever used a coffee mug as a paper weight? Is that its purpose?

When you get hired at a new job, you are sure to find out the purpose for which you were hired and then endeavor to reach that objective. What would happen if you ignored the purpose for which you were hired and instead found meaning in ensuring that the snack room was amply supplied or that the lobby was clean? You would probably be appreciated by many of your co-workers, but fired by your boss.

So how can we discover the purpose of life? A good place to start would be the manifesto given by its creator: The Torah.

Ditch the stoop!

They tell a story of two Jews who were sentenced to death by a firing squad. The sergeant called out, “Ready, Aim…!” Suddenly, one of the Jews cried out, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad!” His friend jabbed him in the ribs, “Sssh! You’ll get us in trouble.”

So often we, as Jewish people, have the tendency to almost be ashamed of who we are. We try to fit in and operate beneath the radar. Instead of confidently communicating our belief and identity, we try to hide it.

The truth is that it’s somewhat understandable considering the severe anti-Semitism that we have experienced over time. But in America we live in an environment that not only doesn’t harass, on the contrary respects, the Jewish people.

So why do we still walk with a Jewish stoop? Why are we still ashamed to demonstrate our Jewishness publicly?

I believe that the answer lies in education. Not only the education of our children, but that of ourselves as well. When we are thoroughly knowledgeable in what it means to be a Jew and we find true value in our Jewish involvement, we are more confident to share it with our neighbors and the world.

So I encourage you to get involved in some of the classes and services that we have to offer, you’ll be amazed at the affect that it will have in your life.

These are my thoughts; please share yours with me – I’d love to hear from you!

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