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.

Were You Stuck in Traffic Yesterday?

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Were you stuck in traffic yesterday?

If you tried to drive to or from the Bay Area, most likely you got stuck in traffic. We had invited some friends over and some of them got so fed up with the traffic that they turned around and went back home!

While discussing this with Goldie last night, we realized that this provides a great metaphor for life: sometimes, while attempting to reach our goal, we will get stuck in traffic. The more important our goal is, the more likely we are to be faced with challenges – both internal and external – while on the road to accomplishing the goal.

Is the solution to give up and turn back home? Obviously, the best outcome is to arrive at our destination. Here are three tips that can help you successfully navigate the traffic:

1. Have a clear picture of your goal. Remind yourself along the way what motivated you to work toward this goal and what is motivating you to accomplish it successfully. If the goal is important enough, a little silly traffic won’t deter you.

2. Be realistic about the challenges that lay ahead. Yes, it is Thanksgiving Day – there will be lots of traffic. By managing your expectations and realizing that it will take an extra hour or two to reach your destination, you will successfully manage and overcome the challenges that lay ahead.

3. Adapt when necessary. Of course an initial plan is needed; turn on the GPS and start following the quickest route. But sometimes that’s not enough – you need to use Waze. Waze is an Israeli GPS company (recently bought out by Google for over one billion dollars!) that updates your route based on the conditions of the road ahead. In life, we may have to adapt based on the unforeseen realities that lay ahead. It doesn’t mean abandoning our goal, it means modifying the route to get there.

One more thing: you know how emergency vehicles get through traffic? They turn on their lights and the cars ahead move to the side (at least they should) and allow them to pass. Its Chanukah today, and an important message on Chanukah is that sometimes the obstacles ahead are not real challenges, they’re just darkness. We don’t need any special techniques or tools to banish darkness; all that’s needed is a bit of light. A little light pushes away a lot of darkness. 

Where Are You?

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The ominous “Black Mary”, usually reserved for criminals, was now carrying one of the greatest Jewish leaders of the day. The year was 1798 and the Alter Rebbe, the first leader of Chabad, had just been arrested on trumped up charges of high treason. (Today, the 19th of Kislev marks the anniversary of his release. It is celebrated worldwide to this day, read more about this special day here).

During the course of his 53 day imprisonment, the Alter Rebbe was visited by many people, even the czar’s own ministers. They had heard of the scholarship of the Alter Rebbe and wanted an opportunity to speak with him.

One particular visitor was a high ranking official who also was a biblical scholar. He presented the Alter Rebbe with a question that had long troubled him. After Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the Torah describes G-d looking for Adam and Eve. “Certainly,” he asked, “G-d doesn’t need to look for Adam and Eve.  Why then does G-d say to them ‘Ayeka' – Where are you?”

The Alter Rebbe offered a simple answer presented by Rashi, but the minister was not satisfied. “I want to know how the Rebbe interprets this verse,” he insisted.

The Alter Rebbe proceeded to explain that the Torah is eternal and its message reverberates in our lives today. G-d’s question of Adam, “Ayeka – where are you?” is the same question that G-d asks continually of each of us: Where are you? What have you accomplished with the time you have been allotted in this world?

An important question for each of us to ponder daily.

Is Murderous Revenge a Good Example?

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You’ve been to a Bar Mitzvah before. You know the drill; family beaming, cameras flashing, some dancing, a nice spread and usually a Rabbi trying to communicate the real meaning of the occasion to an otherwise oblivious young man….

Ok, that last bit might be a little facetious, but we all know that there is more to Bar Mitzvah than the party. What you may not know is from where we learn the age of Bar Mitzvah.

Did you know that we learn the Bar Mitzvah age from two brothers taking swords and wiping out an entire city?!

When describing the revenge taken by two of Dinah’s brothers for her rape by the local prince, Shechem, the Torah uses the term “ish” or man. The brothers were 13 at the time and they are the youngest to be described this way in the Torah, indicating that at age 13 a child is called a man. Hence the age of Bar Mitzvah is 13 years old.

It’s a nice piece of trivia but think about it for a minute; do you know what these brothers did to avenge Dinah’s abduction and assault? That’s right – they killed every male in the entire city! The brothers held them all liable because none of them had lifted a finger to save Dinah. Is this the example we want to set? Is this what we want to communicate to a young impressionable Bar Mitzvah boy? Things don’t go your way – wipe out an entire city?!

The truth is, yes – this is an excellent lesson for a Bar Mitzvah boy! Not specifically to wipe out a city of course, but to be firm in your conviction and stand up for what you believe in.

A young man becoming Bar Mitzvah has to understand that, as a Jewish boy in a primarily non-Jewish world, there will be times that his values should differ from those around him. Teens are especially susceptible to peer pressure, a Bar Mitzvah boy needs to be well educated in his Jewish heritage so that he can maintain his standards and not be influenced by those around him. Instead he should be a guide for what’s right, just and moral to all those with whom he interacts.

May we have that strength ourselves!

8.5 Things You Didn't Know About Chanukah


1. You think that Chanukah begins early this year? The truth is that the date of Chanukah is the same every year… in the Jewish calendar at least! It is always on the 25th day of Kislev. In fact, the name Chanukah can be divided in two; Chanu “they rested” and Kah in Hebrew has the numerical value 25 - an indication when the holiday begins.

2. That’s nice, but do you know what Chanukah actually means? The Hebrew word means dedication because after the victory of the Maccabees, they dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s when they couldn’t find enough oil to light the Menorah, what followed was miraculous, but first -

3. How did those fierce Jewish warriors (an oxymoron if we’ve ever heard of one!) get the name Maccabee? Their battle cry was “Mi Chamochah Ba’Ailim Hashem!” (“Who is like You among the powerful, O L-rd?” Exodus 15:11). The acronym of the Hebrew words spell Maccabee.

4. We celebrate Chanukah for eight days because the oil miraculously lasted eight days instead of one, right? Wrong!! If the oil was sufficient for one day, then the miracle is only seven days! The truth is that we celebrate for eight days, one for the miraculous victory and the rest for the miraculous oil. Click here for more explanations and here for a contemporary dramatization of some impressive esoteric ideas based on this question.

5. The original custom was to light one candle per night, it was considered an extra “beautification of the Mitzvah” to light more. Today everyone lights one on the first night and adds another each night. Do you think it may have been a candle making company involved in that decision?!

6. We’ve got it great - eight nights of gifts (as Adam Sandler sings). But did you know that gifts are not traditionally associated with Chanukah? The custom originated to give the children gelt or money. And the intended purpose? To educate them in giving tzedakah, charity.

7. Did you know that the Chanukah Menorah has a height limit? That’s right, 32 feet tall is the max! You see, the purpose of lighting the menorah is to publicize the miracle and the rabbis felt that if it were taller than 32 feet, it would diminish its effect to the extent that it wouldn’t be publicizing anything as no one would see it.

Do you know where the world’s tallest Menorah is? You guessed it - New York City! Actually, there are two - one in Brooklyn at Grand Army Plaza and one in New York City at Central Park. Click here for a short clip of other interesting Menorahs around the world.

8. Everyone knows that we eat oily foods on Chanukah to commemorate the miraculous oil but did you know there is also a custom to eat dairy foods too? Yes, it’s true! That’s because of a lesser known but equally amazing part of the story, including a Jewish widow and a Greek general, wine and cheese, seduction and decapitation. Click here to read the story.

8.5 Did you know that the premier Chanukah event in Sacramento will take place this year before Chanukah even starts? That’s right - this year’s Chanukah Wonderland event will be on Sunday, November 24th (that’s the Sunday before Chanukah, and Thanksgiving for that matter), at the Folsom Community Center. Click here for more info.

An iPhone as a Paperweight?


Do you have an iPhone or another Smartphone? Think for a moment of all the capabilities that it has. It’s a mobile phone, it has email and data capabilities, but that’s just the beginning. Today you can literally run your whole life from the Smartphone in your pocket. Your Smartphone has better technology than the Apollo 11 that landed on the moon!

Now, I have a question: Can your Smartphone be used as a paperweight? You know, if your window is open and you don’t want the wind to blow all the paper around. Of course the answer is yes, it can be used as a paperweight. In truth it may very well be that you actually use it as one from time to time. But is that why you bought it? Is that the sum of its capabilities? Of course not!

In a similar vein lets take a look at your life - can you find meaning in life by cleaning highways and volunteering at the local zoo? Of course! But is that your purpose of being? Is that why you exist?

I would contend that the reason why you exist is far greater than the areas in which we so often find meaning. In order to properly understand why we exist we have to turn to the One who caused us to exist: G-d.

The Torah provides us with the purpose of our existence; in order to live according to the G-dly precepts and make this world a G-dly place.

Can we find meaning in other areas of life? Yes, of course. But it could be that we are basically using an iPhone as a paperweight and nothing more.

Incorporate Torah study and mitzvah observance in your daily experience; this will enable you to get the most out of your life!

Take it Personally


It’s a heady mix of Torah and technology and it’s all happening at the annual International Shluchim (Chabad reps) Conference that I am attending in New York. I always enjoy this weekend where I get to spend time with 4000 of my colleagues. It’s a thrill to meet Chabad representatives from all over the world and get to hear about the unique challenges and successes of each locale.

And as with most conventions, the most important work happens in the hallways.

I learned today that the Jewish Learning Institute, the international adult education provider of which we are the local affiliate, is beginning to develop courses that are specially designed to be taught by lay people. The idea is that individuals can then share the content, in a casual setting, with a select group of their peers who wouldn’t otherwise come to a regular class.

This idea excites me greatly because I often feel that my biggest challenge is in encouraging people to take their personal Jewish development, well, personally. Judaism and Jewish learning is not the exclusive domain of rabbis and teachers, it is the personal inheritance of each Jewish individual. I’m confident that this will help Jewish people around the world to discover their personal Jewish connection.

Parents often ask me for suggestions for encouraging Jewish involvement in their children, especially after the (mostly artificial) motivation of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The one thing that I see most effective is when parents demonstrate that Jewish participation and learning is personally relevant. Instead of being something that the rabbi encourages and occasionally relenting and participating in a class or a minyan, rather make personal Jewish goals and a general effort to grow Jewishly.

When children see that their parents take it personally, they do too.

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