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.

The President is Following Me!

CH Motorcade.jpg 

It turns out that the president is following me; I’m writing to you from Brooklyn, New York where I am staying for the annual Chabad conference next week and Mr. President is actually going to be driving to speak at a Crown Heights high school later today.

The president will be landing in Prospect Park in Brooklyn on Marine One and his motorcade will drive through Crown Heights to the school. Due to security precautions, Crown Heights has basically been locked down; since last night the streets have been cleared of parked cars and police barricades have been placed along all the sidewalks. Prospect Park will be closed for most of the afternoon as well.

It’s exciting to see the president’s motorcade and I think it would always be considered an honor to host the president for whatever reason he would decide to visit. What I find interesting is that everyone sees this from their personal perspective and can’t recognize the other side of the equation.

Shutting down many streets in a neighborhood and closing a popular park is certainly inconvenient for many but then again, it is necessary. So many people, though, can’t see that and instead they complain: He’s shutting down Prospect Park, now where will the people who use the park for exercise be able to go? And then there is the Jewish connection, the president will be here on a Friday afternoon just a few hours before Shabbat. The president is making it extremely difficult to get ready for Shabbat!

Here’s what’s interesting - everyone sees things from their point of view: How does it affect me?

This self-centered attitude is not usually a good thing; we need to recognize that there are others and that their desires, opinions and goals are of equal importance to ours. But there is one time when we should be self-centered and realize that it’s all about us: when we wonder whether our choice makes a difference.

The Mishnah states that one should consider as though the entire world was created for him. Not, G-d forbid, to allow their ego to run rampant, rather to ensure that one realizes the weight of their choices. It’s not just me and my choice – it’s me, my choice and why G-d created the entire world.

I had better make the right choice.

MLK on This Week's Torah Portion

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


A few weeks ago, some friends of ours participated in a unique kind of race – they took the Tough Mudder challenge. Tough Mudder is a tough (as the name implies) mentally and physically challenging 10 mile obstacle course.

Why did they do it? Because when we overcome challenges we become stronger, more determined and more committed.

The Torah is a book of guidance; it doesn’t include many seemingly relevant historical details, rather it includes the messages that are needed in order to guide us. This is especially true with the information that is shared about our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The details that the Torah includes are due to their educational value.

A surprising story is found in this week’s Torah portion. Abraham is commanded by G-d to offer his only son, born late in his life, as a sacrifice! This story is really troubling to so many; why would G-d command Abraham to do such a sadistic thing? Even though Abraham was stopped at the last minute, why would G-d put Abraham through the trauma of binding his son, laying him on an alter and raising a knife towards him!? Never mind the trauma that his son Isaac would experience!

(There are many insights in this account and you can read some here, here and here).

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live.” Perhaps this quote will help us understand the significance of the binding of Isaac; this test (the last of ten) demonstrated the commitment with which Abraham lived.

If you are Jewish today, it is only because one of your ancestors lived their life with such dedication that they were literally ready to die to preserve their Judaism.

Today, by and large, we are not faced with that level of challenge. The question is can we find the courage and conviction necessary to live a committed Jewish life, even when faced with much lesser challenges. Are we committed enough to buy Kosher even though it may be more expensive? Are we committed enough to go to synagogue even though there is soccer practice or swim meet?  

No longer is the question are we ready to die for Judaism; today the question is are we ready to live for Judaism? Become a Jewish Tough Mudder! Challenge yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually! 

The REAL Jewish Conspiracy

Image Credit: AnatLevi8

Did you know that this week three Jewish professors were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry? That’s aside from the Jewish winners of this years prize in Medicine and Physics. That brings the total number of Jewish Nobel Laureates to 173 (out of a total of 855 Nobel Prizes awarded).

It’s nothing short of amazing that the Jewish people, who make up less than 0.2% of the world’s population, have had such a disproportionate powerful impact on history!

Despite our low numbers, we Jews have always had a central role in world events. Revolutions and social movements, wars and peace efforts, so often Jewish individuals are in the mix. (Even the ongoing government shutdown involves Jewish players; the Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew is Jewish and so is Eric Cantor, one of the Republican leaders in the House).

It’s no doubt that Jewish people have had a very strong impact on society, but what is the uniquely Jewish contribution to the world? What is it that only a Jew can accomplish and no one else?

Some will answer that the Jewish contribution is our emphasis on social justice. Indeed in many Jewish communities this is the primary focus. But while it may be true that the Torah places high importance on taking care of others, and yes, you may have heard the story of Hillel, who answered a prospective convert that the entire Torah can be summed up thus; “Don’t do to others that which you don’t want done to yourself.” Still, this is not a uniquely Jewish trait. Anyone, Jews or non-Jews, can just as well be active in social justice projects. It is not a uniquely Jewish contribution.

The task that we as Jews have been assigned by G-d is to effect the “unification and attachment” of this world with G-d. This can be seen by noticing the distinction between the commandments given to non-Jews, 7 in all, and the 613 Mitzvot that we have been given: The 7 laws that all mankind are responsible to live by are primarily logical laws given to ensure an orderly world. The 613 Mitzvot serve the additional purpose of bridging the infinite gulf between Creator and creation.

If you think about it, there should be no real way to create a connection between G-d and the universe. G-d is omnipotent and omniscient, while we (and all of existence) are but limited physical beings, what can we offer? However, for some reason G-d chose us and gave us Mitzvot, thereby giving us the ability to connect this world with G-d. A Mitzvah is more than just a good deed; a uniquely Jewish Mitzvah is to wrap tefillin, to light Shabbat candles, to place a mezuzah at the doors of your home, to study Torah and more.

When we fulfill G-d’s will, in the form of a uniquely Jewish Mitzvah, we elevate the world and fulfill our uniquely Jewish mission: to make the world a G-dly place.

Pew, Too?

Image Credit: Pew 

The Jewish world has been inundated with opinions about a recent Pew Research Poll that showed the decline of Jewish involvement among American Jews. Among other things it shows alarmingly high rates of intermarriage and assimilation. My uncle Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski of Denver shared with me an interview that was conducted in 1930 with the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe. The same problem was facing the Jewish community then and the Rebbe strongly encouraged Jewish education as an antidote. But there is one comment that is extremely powerful. The Rebbe emphasizes that “Things spiritual, cannot be judged by numbers.” In other words, don’t be disheartened when you are the only Jew in town that takes Judaism seriously; participate on your level and that is of ultimate value. 

The CIA, the Mossad... and this weeks Torah portion

Image Credit: Greenbay

Did you know that some of the CIAs best trained spies were not even humans? That’s right, during the Cold War (and perhaps even to this day) the CIA used birds and other animals to plant listening devices and provide surveillance (among other missions). Of course, they were not the first to send a bird to spy. In fact, the first account of such use is mentioned in this week’s Torah portion when Noah, following the flood, sent first a raven and then a dove to investigate whether the flood waters had sufficiently receded.

The mysterious and almost mythical Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, is also related to this week’s Torah portion. Here’s how: The Mossad’s motto is a verse from Mishlei (Proverbs 11:14): “Without strategy the people falls, but with many counselors there is victory.” In describing the plans regarding the construction of the Tower of Bavel, this week’s Torah portion explains that these people were united with a common purpose. Their unity of mission was so strong that they are described as “of one language and uniform words.” (Genesis 11:1).

The unity of these people, you could argue, was admirable but the extent which they allowed it go, not leaving room for dissenting opinions, was far from positive. In fact, it led to their downfall. It is told about them that they were so caught up in their pursuit of making a name for themselves, that they neglected to care for one another. In fact, they would cry if a brick or building material would break but would ignore when one of their fellows would fall and die.

However, the biggest mistake that the generation of the Tower of Bavel made was in their very mission itself. They were only a short while after the time of The Flood and while they have been concerned with reversing the cause of The Flood, all they were concerned with was “let us make ourselves a name.” They should have examined the ways of the past and realized that the cause of the flood was the immoral behavior at the time. They should have worked to create a society that ran according to moral and ethical values and established schools to teach this way of life. Instead, they chose an empty and unhelpful goal of making a name for themselves.

This story is included in the Torah narrative because there are important lessons for us. Our generation has been witness to degradation in society. Once strongly held moral principles are scoffed at as being outdated and at best irrelevant. Our job, more than anything else, is to ensure the reversal of this trend. We can choose to invest our efforts, energy and hard earned dollars to “make ourselves a name” or we can choose to strengthen, support and participate in propagating positive values and morals.

Please join us in making the right choice.

* * *

Supporting organizations, like our Chabad Jewish Community Center, that strengthen belief in G-d and living a fulfilled Jewish life is a great way to personalize the lesson provided by the people of the Tower of Bavel. On the most basic level this means to assist in constructing an inviting space for Jewish people of all walks of life to study and celebrate their precious heritage.  

Over the holidays we were privileged to have beautiful new flooring installed. Please join me in thanking Ze’ev and OrTal Shtulvarg and family for their generosity in sponsoring the new flooring. Come by this Shabbat and see for yourself the wonderful difference it makes!! 

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