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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.

Should you ever change your mind?

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You’ve probably heard of the fable of a US naval ship on a collision course with what it thought was a Canadian ship.

The US ship orders the Canadian “ship” to adjust its course in order to avoid a collision. The Canadian “ship” advises that the US ship be the one to adjust its course. The belligerent radio operator on the US ship, feeling insulted by what it perceived to be receiving orders from an inferior, informs the Canadian operator that he represents the largest aircraft carrier in the US navy along with its numerous support ships and commands the Canadian “ship” to adjust its course. The Canadian “ship” responds that it is a lighthouse and advises the US ship that it just may want to oblige…

It may not be a true story but it has an important message and not only that, it’s connected to this week’s Torah portion!

There are times that we need fortitude and perseverance to stick with what we know to be true, even in the face of adversary. Like a lighthouse, standing firmly in one place, shining brightly even when the waves come crashing down on all sides.

There are, however, occasions where sticking to what we previously thought to be correct is not only deplorable, it’s detrimental. If we stick to our previous ideas of life, even when a lighthouse is signaling to us the correct and healthy path, we will crash and sink.

This week’s Torah portion is a double portion. The names of each of the portions are seemingly at odds with each other. The first is called “Nitzavim” or “standing firmly”; the second is called “VaYeilech,” or “and he went.” The first connotes resilience and conviction, the second growth and change.

At first glance the two names are incongruous; however the truth is that they actually complement each other. Even more, one without the other can be detrimental.

At times it’s necessary to take a stand and be firm in our conviction and belief. At other times it’s necessary to realize the need to change. Both take strength of character; both can be difficult. And above all, it takes deep insight to realize when to be firm and when to bend.

To paraphrase the serenity prayer: G-d, grant me the fortitude to maintain the things I should not change; the courage to change the things I should… and wisdom to know the difference.

Ketivah vachatimah tovah, may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Should we allow children to choose?

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Image credit: efffective.com
 

The worst thing you can do for your children is allow them to make their own choices.

Sounds a little extreme? Well, I needed to get your attention somehow! Let’s work through this, hear me out and please share your thoughts – I’d love to hear from you.

The modern mindset dictates that there is no inherent right and wrong. As long as you don’t hurt someone else, you’re more or less ok. But is this a valid standard? Pause for a second and think; in your heart of hearts, does it ring true?

If this morally ambiguous standard was true, why then do we feel positively about some behaviors and are repelled by others? Even children have an ingrained sense of right and wrong.

For some reason, we have become uncomfortable with the notion of clearly defined boundaries and standards. For this reason, many today are disillusioned and depressed, because in order to lead a truly meaningful life we must have clearly defined standards. In order to live a healthy life we must have a clear sense of right and wrong. And in order to raise emotionally healthy children we must be able to confidently communicate these standards.

The imperative of a clear set of moral guidelines is communicated many times in the Torah. In this week’s portion it is shared in an especially poignant and compelling manner. The Jewish people are at the border of Israel; Moses is sharing his last words of guidance before handing the reins of leadership to his dedicated disciple and successor, Joshua.

Moses instructs the Jewish people that when they enter the land, they should gather at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. They should divide the tribes into two groups of six, one group on each mountain and the tribe of Levi in the valley between. They were instructed to pronounce 12 moral guidelines of the Torah. Rashi explains that they were to face Mount Gerizim and declare that one who would fulfill these guidelines would be blessed. They would then turn to Mount Ebal and declare the ill-fated results for one who didn’t live up to these standards. (These instructions were fulfilled by Joshua, as described at the end of chapter 8 of the book of Joshua 8:30-35.)

Why the need for all the show craft? Why was it necessary to communicate the message of right and wrong in such a dramatic manner? The Torah is emphasizing here an important matter – in order for the Jewish people to be successful in the new land they were settling. In order for them to be able to establish a healthy society, they had to have a very clear understanding of right and wrong. There was no room for moral ambiguity.

This message is true today; there must be two clearly delineated paths, two mountains, if you will. Some actions are good and a blessing, while others are tantamount to curses. And there must be a clearly defined difference between the two. And while we might allow our children to choose for themselves, (i.e. we won’t force anything on them), we will clearly communicate which choices are right and which ones are wrong.

Ketivah vachatimah tovah, may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

I'm not a Catholic priest

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Although I wear a large yarmulkah, many people seem to think that I’m a Catholic priest; for some reason the first thing they say to me is a confession! “You know, I’m not a good Jew. I don’t even go to synagogue on the High Holidays.”

Others must think that I’m some type of Jewish police asking for their Jewish ID. The first thing they tell me is their family’s strong Jewish heritage and how their grandfather was the president of the synagogue in the town where they grew up.

Let me clarify something important. In Judaism, there is no need for an intermediary to connect you with G-d. Each and every person has their own direct line to G-d – you don’t need the rabbi to do anything for you!

Conversely, the responsibility to connect to G-d is on each person. You can’t blame it on the rabbi or the cantor. Each person has the ability – and therefore responsibility – to connect with G-d on their terms.

And there is no such thing as one who is too far; it doesn't change based on what you do or what you believe, your unique direct line to G-d is always connected. This direct line is not affected by non-payment; whenever you pick up, the line it is connected. All you need to do is to reach out.

So this year on Rosh Hashanah make sure to join us for services. We’ll make it as easy as we can for you to participate, but don’t expect the work to be done for you. We’ll announce the pages, but you’ll have to look inside and focus. We’ll provide insight and explanation, but it’s up to you to meditate and personalize the ideas.

That’s the job of the Rabbi; not to judge and absolve, but rather to teach and to guide.

Exiled and Free

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“Oh my, what have I done?!” 

The awful realization began to sink in; he had just killed a man!

It was a terrible accident which he couldn’t have seen coming and there was no way to prevent. Faulty equipment caused a sharp blade to fly off the axe just as someone walked through the door. The horror of what had occurred began to sink in… But it was too late now. A man lay dead on the ground.

The Torah rules in the case of an inadvertent murderer that he must leave his home and community and go into exile. This provides a two-fold solution; it protects him from the possible vengeance of a relative of the deceased and it also provides a spiritual atonement, because exile is a method that one atones for sins.

There is a profound Chassidic teaching that explains the practical relevance of this law today (a time when its literal application is, for the time being, not possible).

This City of Refuge concept is uniquely connected to the Jewish month we are in, Elul. This week’s Torah portion that discusses details about this law is always during this month, and the Hebrew word Elul is an acronym of the Hebrew words that describe this Mitzvah*.

Exile means to leave (as G-d told to Abraham) “your land, your birthplace and your father’s house.” The month of Elul is like a time-based City of Refuge. We enter it by stepping out of the familiar surroundings of our personal desires, our inborn character traits and the conclusions reached through our limited human intellect.

When we are looking to free ourselves from the negativity that we have accumulated over the past year, we must step away from – 

-          Our personal desires, the egocentric mindset of “what do I need?” and exchange it for the mindset of “what am I needed for?” When we are able to appreciate our purpose in being, we are able to appreciate the means to accomplish it.

-          Our inborn character traits can be a real obstacle for growth. We don’t need to be like the scorpion in Aesop’s famous fable; being conscious and aware of our tendencies helps us overcome them. We may have been born with these character traits, but just as we outgrow other tendencies, we can outgrow these negative traits too.

-          Our limited human intellect is a source of great innovation, but it is also a very limiting force. Realizing that some things are greater than we are, opens us for positive change and personal growth.

I wholeheartedly encourage you; let go of your baggage and travel into the empowering month of Elul, harness its force and create meaningful and lasting positive change in your life.

* The Hebrew word אלולis an acronym for the words of the verse (Exodus 21:13) אִנָּהלְיָדווְשַׂמְתִּילְךָ“[G-d] caused it to happen, and I will provide [a place] for you [to which he can flee].”

A Knife Wielding Rabbi?

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Standing silently while sharpening his large knife, he was a formidable presence. Looking up with horror, the traveling Magid (Jewish preacher of yesteryear) began to tremble. “W..what do you want from me?”  he stuttered.

“Your words have inspired us to repent. You caused the community to be overwhelmed with remorse for their sins. Everyone is now crying bitterly over their transgressions,” replied the man. His name was Rab Shmuel Munkes, a chassid, and he never looked quite as menacing as he did now brandishing that large, sharp blade.

“So why the knife?” wondered the bewildered Magid.

“I was taught that praying at the gravesite of a righteous man is a sure way to obtain forgiveness from G-d,” replied Reb Shmuel, still firmly holding the knife which by now was sharp and ready for use. “ We have no such grave nearby and it’s rare that such a righteous man as yourself visits this area.”

Slowly it dawned on the Magid. “This man wants to kill me!” he thought with alarm. “B…but, but I’m not so righteous!” he cried out. “I have impure thoughts and I occasionally sin. I’m not the righteous man that you seek!”

“You’re more than righteous enough for us,” Reb Shmuel was now closer than before and the Magid felt his blood run cold.

“No, you truly don’t understand,” the Magid was crying now, “I lie and I cheat... I have stolen money and caused people harm… I’m really not righteous at all – you will not gain a grave of a righteous man by killing me!”

Reb Shmuel put down the knife and leaned in close to the poor Magid’s face. “If you’re actions are as you describe, what gives you the right to cause so many beautiful and righteous Jews so much heartache. Your speech earlier brought them to tears of remorse while in reality you are the real sinner!”

Needless to say, the Magid learned an important lesson that day. He soon adopted a new profession and was not found again preaching repentance to other people.

***

The question is how did Reb Shmuel Munkes know that this Magid was insincere? How did Reb Shmuel know with such certainty that he was a fraud?

Reb Shmuel knew that someone who was truly righteous would only see the positive in others. He would not berate them for their misdeeds; he would support and encourage their positive character traits and behaviors.

The same is true in our personal lives. So often, two people will experience similar mishaps or unplanned changes to their life, yet they will react and be affected in completely different ways.

Why? It’s all a matter of perspective. One whose attitude is negative will actually have a negative experience. One whose attitude is positive will actually have a positive experience.

Sounds unrealistic and simple? It is simple, yet profoundly true and real. 

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I’m so passionate about this subject and there is a lot more to say on it, click here to see a short (unedited) webcast with more insight on this topic.

One important way to maintain a positive perspective in life is to constantly remind ourselves of the blessings we each have in our day to day lives. Click here for a short daily meditation to begin your day in a positive with a positive perspective.

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