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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.

Smart Foolishness

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With the best intentions we plan how we are going to do better. We plan to have a better attitude or we plan to treat others with more respect. We plan to eat better and exercise more. But often when it comes to the crunch, we’re not always able to pull through. We get frustrated with ourselves and promise that we’ll try harder next time… Or, we give up entirely.

But why is this so often the cycle? Are we not sincere in our decisions when we make them? What causes us to make mistaken choices? You can take this further and ask what causes people to sin? Do we not know that it’s wrong?

The Talmud tells us that were it not for a “spirit of folly” we would never sin. The understanding is that one who knows right from wrong could still make mistakes because of this "ru’ach shtus” – spirit of folly. In other words, even though in mind and understanding one may be perfectly aware of right and wrong but this spirit of folly could still cause someone to choose wrongly.

Does this mean that we’re doomed? We can never better ourselves because there’s always a chance that we’ll be influenced by this inherent foolishness? Of course not! But there is a very particular remedy to this. We have to “fight fire with fire." Just like we can be adversely influenced by foolishness, we can incorporate foolishness in a positive sense.

We are still here today as Jews because of “holy foolishness.” We didn’t give in when everyone said it’s impossible. We persevered when it made no sense. In our personal lives, when we make a firm decision that come what may I will remain true to my conviction even if it seems foolish, this is what keeps us moving forward. When we follow the norm we can always fall victim to negative foolishness, but when we engage in “holy foolishness,” we keep growing and moving forward.

What I learned from last nights talk

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Last night I had the opportunity (along with 500+ others) to hear the personal account of Mrs. Eva Schloss, the step-sister and childhood friend of Anne Frank. She told of her experience as a young refugee in Amsterdam and her family’s eventual betrayal to the Germans. She recounted her horrific experience in Auschwitz and how she survived and eventually settled in England. You can learn more about Eva and her story here.

One part of her story struck me: As she recounted the time in Amsterdam after the German occupation she listed the slow, step by step isolation of the Jewish community there. She described how they were first restricted from using public benches and transportation, which in her words, “wasn’t so bad because we had bicycles." The Jewish children were not allowed to go to regular schools, “which was fine, really, we didn’t mind." Then she described the restrictions on movement: they weren’t allowed out in the morning or at night, only in the middle of the day for a few hours. On this, too, she commented “this wasn’t so bad.” Even when she described the decree to wear a yellow patch, she commented, “We didn’t really mind this either."

As I was hearing this, I realized how important it is to be aware of small changes. Had the Germans tried to impose everything in one sweeping decree it would have been met with stronger resistance, but as each change was implemented it paved the way for the next and the next. Eventually leading to rounding up Jewish people and stuffing them in cattle cars…

Many people will draw modern political parallels to this story but I want to bring your attention to a much more important and frightening parallel… that is quite possibly happening in your own home!

I ask people all the time, how important is it to raise a Jewish family? The response more often than not is that it is a high priority. The problem is that in order for this to happen, we need to invest in it and put effort in creating a Jewish environment in the home and outside the home. We easily allow ourselves to be lax in many areas and before too long we realize that we are raising an American family that happens to be Jewish, rather than a Jewish family. It happens gradually, over time, and many times it’s not noticed until it’s too late…

The good news is that just as gradual changes can have long term negative effect, so too we can easily implement gradual positive changes that will have long term positive effects. So before you delete this email, choose one mitzvah that you can add to your family’s regular routine. Perhaps if you don’t yet, it’s a good time to begin to light Shabbat candles at the correct time? Begin tonight at 4:52pm, blessings and instructions can be found here. Click here for other mitzvah ideas.

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One Jewish leader who really focused on reversing the trend among modern Jewry is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe made it his priority that Jews around the world have the opportunity to learn about their heritage and sent emissaries (like us here in Folsom) to every place in the world that Jews live. This Monday is the anniversary of the date that the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe passed away in 1950 and the date that the present Rebbe, in 1951, began his leadership of the movement. Click here to learn more about the Rebbe. Please join us for Shabbat tefillah tomorrow morning which will be followed by a special farbrengen in honor of this occasion. 

How do you define success in life?

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How do you define success in life? What do you have to accomplish in order to be satisfied that you have lived a worthwhile and successful life? Do you have to own your own home free and clear to be considered successful? Or do you have to make a million dollars? Or ten million?

I’m sure you would agree that financial success or a successful career does not define a successful life. I think it doesn’t even contribute to a successful life. Yet we spend so much of our time and energy on these areas of our life.

The first step to living a successful life is to live a transcendent life. I don’t mean to encourage you to move to a mountain top and meditate all day. A transcendent life is one that is not self centered and ego driven, rather purpose driven and devoted to a higher cause and set of values; i.e. living a life according to the guidelines of the Torah.

But this is just the first step. To be truly successful in life we must transmit these values and ideals to the next generation. When we raise our children with a firm foundation they then have the ability to accomplish and succeed at everything in life. When our children our raised by society’s standard-less and shifting values, they have no firm foundation and it hinders their achievement in all areas.

Just the other day I read a story about Estee Ackerman, she is an eleven year old table-tennis champ (ranked fourth in her age group) from New York who forfeited a chance to advance her ranking because the game conflicted with her observance of Shabbat. Her parents can say that they have been successful in life. She is privileged to be raised with a firm foundation and because of it she will be more successful in life.

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Join me for another moment for an important insight from this week’s Torah portion. The portion begins (Exodus 6:2-3) “God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob etc.” On the words “I appeared”, the classic commentator Rashi helpfully adds “to the fathers”.

Quick question – don’t we know that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are “the fathers”?  What is Rashi adding to our understanding of the verse?

Through emphasizing that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the fathers of the Jewish people he is telling us that more than merely physical ancestors they also transmitted their values and ideals to their children. They were true fathers who successfully raised their descendants true to their ways. That is why the Torah is mentioned them here and that is what Rashi is emphasizing in his commentary.

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Here’s the question we all have to ask ourselves every day:  What am I doing today to ensure that I will be successful in life?

Do you exist?

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Do you exist? Well, of course you feel that you exist, but is that true or are you just a part of a projected reality?

Sound ridiculous? Possibly. But hear me out. If you are like a major majority of this country, you profess to believe in G-d. If that’s the case, consider this. G-d, in the true, essential sense – not the convenient friendly “pet” G-d that so many seem to believe in – but the Creator and Life Force of all that exists, is greater than all the words that are used to describe Him. In truth, any description or definition is a limitation and G-d cannot be limited.

All existence that we know of is defined by time and space, existence as we know it is limited. At some point this existence that we know of was not here, it had to be created, and at some point it will cease to exist. But G-d always was and always will be.

In other words, the only true existence is G-d. This is actually what the Torah says: “Ein oid milvado - there is none else besides Him.” (Deut. 4:35). If that’s the case, do we – and the entire world that we know and inhabit – actually exist?

The fact is that the Torah describes creation and we are here. The world was created; it was caused – by G-d – to exist. What possible gain is there for this created existence? What is the accomplishment of creating this world? What can possibly be the positive purpose (from G-d’s perspective) of creating this entity whose very existence seems to deny the existence of its Creator?

The entire purpose of creation – our entire purpose – is to transcend this physical world in which we live and be more G-dly. How? By doing a mitzvah. And more than that, by doing a mitzvah using a physical object. Taking a physical coin and giving it to Tzedakah (charity); transforming an ordinary piece of leather into tefillin; changing a regular bundle of wheat into matzah for Passover. By elevating an ordinary, physical part of existence into a mitzvah, we fulfill our purpose.

The power of a lamp is demonstrated by the distance its light will reach. The depths of one’s knowledge can be recognized by one’s ability to teach and share this knowledge even in the simplest form. So too, G-d's infinite greatness is best expressed when a physical object is used for a G-dly purpose.

The bottom line? Do a mitzvah like your very existence depended on it. Because it does.

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