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.

Is just showing up enough?

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 Photo credit: Stencil Archive

“Showing up is 80 percent of life,” Allen Stewart Konigsberg (otherwise known as Woody Allen) is quoted as saying. There may be some truth to that statement, but living with that mindset is definitely not going to bring you much success or satisfaction. (Actually, supervisors have it better than anyone – they can cause cheerfulness, excitement and downright delight just by NOT showing up!)

This week we learn about the Ten Plagues that, well, plagued the Egyptians all those years ago. As with everything that we learn in the Torah, there is practical and personal relevance in the story of the plagues.

Let’s take a look at the first one: Blood. The Torah relates how all the water in Egypt turned to blood. The Egyptians, we're told, worshiped the Nile; after all, it was their primary source of irrigation. Water is calm and cool, representing indifference and apathy toward holiness; blood is warm and represents enthusiasm and passion in holy matters.

The reason that the Torah recounts the entire story of the Exodus for us to study, over 3000 years later, is for us to gain insight into our own struggles. The first thing that needs to be spiritually accomplished is to change our attitude towards Judaism. We have to shift from a mindset of coldness, “I’ll fit it in when/if I can,” to one of passion and excitement.

This is also the answer to the age-old question of how to transfer Judaism to the next generation. Unlike some people think, it’s not enough to just show up! When children see that living a Jewish life is a priority, they automatically place a priority on it too!

The great scholar Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked what has caused the decline of Judaism in America. He responded that it’s the expression, “Oy, s’shver tzu zayn a yid! (How difficult it is to be a Jew).” When children grow up hearing that expression from their parents, even if not actually articulated, inevitably they will be uninterested to participate themselves. When children see that Jewish observance is important to their parents, they will take it seriously too!

Raise your hand for good

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Photo credit:

Here’s an interesting story from this week’s Torah headlines: “He (Moses) went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, "Why are you going to strike your friend?"

Do you notice something incongruous here? Go on, read it again. That’s right! The Torah refers to one of them as “wicked” only for so much as threatening to strike the other.

There’s an important message there – the intention to hit alone already warrants his being labeled “wicked.” But why would this be the case? He hasn’t actually done anything wrong yet?!

Here’s the point – we have been created with hands to do good, to use them for positive and constructive uses. Raising ones hand with the intention to hit is already a deviation from the hand’s intended purpose. Therefore the perpetrator, although not legally liable, is described in the Torah as “wicked.”

 But there’s a positive side to this too.

When we do good, pushing ourselves to do more than we’re accustomed to do, we would be described as “righteous.” It’s not some unattainable level of goodness and giving that’s expected from us; rather, we are expected to do more than we did yesterday.

And that’s truly righteous.

The secret to gaining control of your life

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Photo Credit: Livinus 

Do you feel that your life has too much going on? Do you feel that there are so many different disparate dimensions of your life that each need to be dealt with differently? If you are like so many people, you probably feel – to some extent at least – that you need to get a handle on the different parts of your life. How do we gain control?

Stay with me for a moment while I share with you an important discussion in this week’s Torah portion and you will see that its message has direct relevance to us. This week we read about Ya’akov blessing and instructing his children immediately before his passing. At this time he also alludes to the reason why Re’uven, the firstborn, lost the privilege of his progeny becoming the Jewish kings and why it was instead transferred to Yehudah’s descendants.

Re’uven had years prior interfered with his father’s sleeping arrangements. Ya’akov had four wives and when Rachel died, Re’uven had moved his father’s bed to his mother Leah’s tent, rather than where Ya’akov had placed it, in Bilhah’s tent. It was a bad decision that cost his children the kingship.

Yehudah, on the other hand, is told that his descendants will be the kings of Israel. This is due to his public admission in the case of Tamar and his saving of his brother Yoseph from death at the hands of his brothers by selling him as a slave. For his willingness to take responsibility for his actions and to stand up for his brother, he is rewarded with the kingship going to his descendants.

Sounds good so far, but there seems to be a problem; Re’uven had also admitted his wrongdoing. Not only that, he was actually the first to take a stand and try to save his brother Yoseph from being killed! When the brothers had wanted to kill Yoseph, Re’uven had intervened and suggested that they throw him into a pit instead.

Why did Re’ueven lose the kingship from his family? He seems to have the same merits that Yehudah had!?

In fact, there is a big difference: Yehudah’s admission of guilt had an immediate effect on another person: Tamar’s life was saved. As well, his selling Yoseph as a slave took Yoseph’s life out of immediate danger. Not so with Re’uven. His admission of guilt and repentance were of personal nature, he strove to better his decision making process and to honor his father’s wishes, but it didn’t actually effect a tangible change to anyone else. Also, his intervention with Yoseph only caused that the brother’s didn’t actually kill Yoseph with their own hands; instead Yoseph was placed in a pit to die a slow and painful death. (True, Re’uven’s intention was to return and save him, but that was not known to anyone other than Re’uven himself).

Here’s the point that I think is so relevant. So often we get paralyzed to inaction by the overwhelming number of different tasks that need to be accomplished. We also start to think of all the “what ifs” and end up right where we started.

We can learn from Yehudah the importance of actually doing something, taking a step in the right direction. Actually doing something, rather than thinking or talking about doing it. When we actually take a step, the road ahead becomes clearer and more into focus and we can see where to go next.

The Rebbe constantly encouraged, nay exhorted, his Chassidim – and all those who would listen – about the importance of action. He disliked the modern Jewish “establishments” method of multi-year studies and committee meetings to discuss the next step. Rather he encouraged action – do something in the right direction. This is more worthwhile than multiple meetings and discussions.

In our own personal or professional lives too, the key to achieving clarity and success is taking action.

Don’t just sit there – do something!!

Allow me to assist you in crossing the road

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Photo credit: Ali Taylor 

Allow me please to assist you in crossing the road; you have so many bags that are weighing you down… Often we go through life and allow the frustrations that we experience in our relationship with others to weigh us down. We hold a grudge; we keep our feelings of resentment alive, virtually on life support, preventing us from moving ahead.

In this week’s Torah portion we learn the reaction of Joseph when he reconnected with his brothers after being sold by them as a slave 22 years earlier. He didn’t retain any baggage, he didn’t hold a grudge – he forgave them. His attitude was that the entire arduous experience was all part of G-d’s will to provide sustenance to his family and the entire region.

It’s amazing the power of a simple shift in attitude! Had Joseph instead felt the need – and seemingly legitimately so – to reprimand his brothers and punish them for what they had done everything would have been different. Joseph was able to let go of the baggage and cross the road instead of getting stuck in the darkness.

More recently we saw an extraordinary demonstration of the incredible effect a simple shift in attitude is able to have. Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa who passed away yesterday, had every reason to be resentful. He was imprisoned for 27 years! He was mistreated and maligned yet when given the opportunity he chose forgiveness over blame and reconciliation over recrimination.

Whether the abuse we suffer from others is on this scale or perhaps even more damaging, in order to cross the road we need to let go of the baggage that’s weighing us down.

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