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.

Do You Pray?

Do you pray? That’s a question that will ensure that many will not read this post, and most certainly won’t respond.

Tefillah (generally translated, somewhat inaccurately, as prayer) is central to Judaism, but for some reason many Jews haven’t incorporated tefillah into their lives. I contend this is due to a lack of understanding about the fundamentals of tefillah.

Many think that prayer is reserved for when in distress, a time of need, when all other options have come up empty. When all else fails, we turn to G-d. But in truth, as Jews we are expected to pray daily - actually, three times daily.

So what is the purpose of this prayer?

The Hebrew word tefillah is better defined as an intimate connection and communication. The soul connects to it’s divine source and is able to appreciate it’s mission in this world - to give life to the body. And our body can reconnect to it’s mission in this world - to make this world a dwelling place for G-d.

Too often we get caught up in the rat-race of life; Tefillah is a time to develop our connection to the A-lmighty and realize our higher purpose in this world. Tefillah is the time to let G-d into our life.

When Reb Menachem Mendel from Kotzk (the Kotzker Rebbe) was a child, he was asked by his father's friend; "Menachem Mendel, where does G-d live?" The young child was quick with his response; "Wherever you let Him in!"

Be the Captain of Your Own Ship!

I’m sure you heard about what happened to the Costa Concordia last week. It ran aground on the shore of Italy and partially sank, forcing over 4000 crew and passengers to evacuate. At least 11 people died and many were wounded in the incident.

Notwithstanding the terrible accident itself, the news has mostly been dominated by the detail that the captain had abandoned ship. On a regular day the captain’s job may arguably be less important than say the engineer in the boiler room. The captain’s real job starts when there is an emergency. His job is to ensure the safety of the crew and passengers. Instead of leading the evacuation, the captain of the Costa Concordia left the boat and refused to return even after being ordered to by the coast guard.

In many ways, we are all like a ship navigating our way through the sometimes rough waters of life. Our captain is the soul within each of us, a portion of G-d. On a regular day we may not hear from our “captain”, we may be able to get by without him. It’s when we are faced with a challenge, that we really need to be able to draw strength from our soul.

But will our soul rise to the occasion or will it “abandon ship”? For that we need to train. We need to train our soul by regularly doing Mitzvot and studying Torah. By training ourselves to lead our lives by a higher standard - not just with a focus on what’s in it for me, but with a focus on  what am I needed for. Then, when we are faced with an “emergency” we will be equipped to handle it and will think about what we are needed for rather than only how can we save our own skin.

Do You Work?

Henny Youngman said: You know why Jews don't drink? It interferes with their suffering.

In the Torah’s description of the story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt (which we begin to read this week during the weekly readings of the Torah), Moses confronts G-d with the age old question - “Why do bad things happen to good people?!” Or in the words of Moses “Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?” (
Exodus 5:22).

The work that the Jewish people were required to do in Egypt is described as “Avodat Perach”. Generally translated as “back breaking labor”, the Talmud says that this means unnatural labor. Work that is typically for men was forced onto women and vice versa.

The Torah is a guide book for life, hence the name Torah - from the word ho’ra’ah - which means teaching or instruction. In the Torah, specific details of events are taught and many others are left without mention. And all the stories and topics included in the Torah are there for the lesson contained within.

According to the explanation sited above, a beautiful insight can be gleaned: It’s not necessarily the amount that you accomplish, rather it’s the growth that is important. Our “work” must be “unnatural” and only then is it valuable.

Those things in life that come easy, naturally, with minimal effort - as important and succesfull as they are, are not “work”. Real work is pushing ourselves beyond our (perceived) limitations. Getting out of our box and pushing beyond the limit. That’s called real work.

For this type of “suffering” we need real focus and that’s why we don’t drink.

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Be Stubborn... In A Positive Way!

You may have heard of the recent distressing news coming from Beit Shemesh in Israel. With the media latching on to this story, you probably have. I have strongly protested the use of violence and mayhem (as have many others - including this official statement from Chabad Headquarters in New York. Read this article too). Expected, but equally deplorable, is the use of this story by some to promote their ideologically driven agendas.

All sides of the matter can be “blamed” on our unique Jewish characteristic described in the Torah as “stiff-necked” (See
Exodus 32:9). We have the ability to behave in irrational ways; this trait can be traced all the way back to when Jewish people sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf barely 6 weeks after the receiving the Torah and witnessing the awesome revelation at Mount Sinai.

We see this being played out in the recent stories out of Israel. The incitement to violence by Jews against other Jews; the retaliation by Jews against other Jews. And the terrible way this whole story has been manipulated by the Israeli press, public and even politicians.

But there is a positive explanation for the “stiff-necked” nature of Jews. It is a special inner strength, a quality that has kept us alive throughout all the years of exile and persecution. It is this inner strength that enables us to continue to live as Jews in any environment (even Folsom/El Dorado Hills!).

Let us focus on the positive aspect of our “stiff-neckedness” rather than allowing this trait to be expressed in an unholy manner. Let’s commit to expressing our “stiff-neckedness” by being involved in the local Jewish community and bringing Judaism and Jewish practice to our homes and families - even though it’s not in vogue. Let’s express our “stiff-neckedness” by being proud of who we are and not hiding our identity - after all we have what to be proud of and we have the innate ability to be “stiff-necked”. Let’s use it in a positive way!

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