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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.

The Next Big Thing

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Do you have an iPhone 6? Or maybe you have the latest Samsung phone? How new is your printer, laptop (do people even use them anymore?) or tablet?

It seems, especially recently, that people are always buying the newest and coolest, even though what they currently own and use is in perfect working order.

This is true with electronics and other possessions, but when was the last time that you took some time to upgrade your Judaism?

Even those who have advanced degrees recognize the need to engage in continuing education, in fact many industries require it.

But too many parents today have barely a working knowledge of Judaism, at best. Most went to Hebrew School as a child, as an obligation so they could have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. And that was more or less the end of their Jewish education.

It is time to upgrade your Jewishness; I highly recommend it. It’s time to read more Jewish teachings, learn more and participate more often. You’ll appreciate it - it’s a totally different experience than when you were in Hebrew School. And truthfully, it’s not possible to raise a proud and informed Jewish child in our local environment without properly investing in the effort. And a major part is upgrading your own Jewish knowledge to that of an adult.

In this week’s Torah portion we read about Abraham being told by G-d to “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.”

As always, we ask how does this verse provide guidance to us today? We’re not only reading a historic account regarding Abraham and his interaction with G-d. This particular narrative is part of the Torah in order to provide some specific guidance to us.

This verse is telling us an important message - don’t be complacent. Don’t remain in the place that you are now, albeit a familiar one. The place that you’re in now may be “your land” or “your birthplace” or even “your father’s home;” but in order to fulfill your purpose in life, it’s necessary to leave it and to grow.

So, don’t delay - claim your upgrade today!

Dare to diverge

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A famous parenting expert was laying a new concrete path outside his home. No sooner was his back turned than a crowd of neighborhood children came running by, leaving unsightly footmarks all over the hardening surface. Red in the face and mad, he turned and started to scream at the kids. A neighbour who heard him called out, “I’m surprised, Sam. You told me you liked kids.” He replied, “I like them – in the abstract, but not in the concrete.”

It’s not uncommon to choose a role model for one’s self and seek their guidance on important life issues. It’s difficult when our role models turn out to be regular individuals, who have their own challenges - and occasionally fail. It’s easy to think, “OK, s/he is not a good role model for me, let me find someone else.”

Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion begins with surprising wording providing insight into just this challenge.

Introducing the narrative of the Deluge, the Torah tells us about Noah and proclaims that he was a righteous man. However, an additional word is then added, “bedorotav - in his generation.” The interpretations of this emphasis diverges; either that he was righteous despite the negative influence of his generation or that he was righteous only compared to his generation but had he lived in another time, say in the era of Abraham, he wouldn’t be considered overly righteous.

Simple enough, but here’s the question - the Torah avoids gratuitous negative reporting. Why then would the Torah inform us (according to the second view) that Noah was not truly righteous, rather only so when compared to the rest of his generation?

Perhaps this is exactly the point: The Torah intends to advise us as to the benefit of choosing imperfect role models. Noah may not have been perfect, but he was able to resist the negative influences surrounding him. Was he perfect? No. Can we still learn from him? Absolutely.

* * *

I want to extend this idea slightly and I would love to hear your feedback on this point. Many people that I’ve come to know over the years face the following dilemma: on the one hand, they’ve come to recognize that there is so much more to Judaism than bagels and lox. They’ve come to appreciate the depth and beauty that comes with living an observant Jewish life. And they want it for their family, they want to learn more and connect to their heritage in a deep and meaningful way.

So what’s holding them back? They feel that by doing so they are betraying their parents; they feel that by becoming more observant they are tacitly stating that their own Jewish upbring was deficient. They feel like they are disrespecting their parents and/or the rabbi and community of the Temple or Synagogue where they grew up.

This weeks Torah portion tells us that although we may choose to live a more authentic Jewish life, although we may not follow the way were raised, we can still respect, appreciate and learn from the positive in our parents, former teachers and role models.

We may recognize that they’re imperfect Jewish role models, but we can still respect them. Were they perfect? No. Can we still learn from them? Absolutely.

In other words, our choice to do more does not somehow repudiate our connection with them. The bottom line? Keep growing in Jewish study and observance; don’t let your upbringing hold you back!

Unleashed on Yom Kippur

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Yom Kippur. Everyone has a different association. Some focus on the fasting, others on forgiveness. For some, it’s a matter of spending much longer than they’d rather in the synagogue. Personally, I find it to be a profound and extremely meaningful holiday.

How can Yom Kippur be meaningful, you wonder? I’d happily share my thoughts in person, but suffice it to say that if you’d like to appreciate it too, you need to tune in. Radio waves are everywhere, but without a device, a radio that is tuned in, you will be completely oblivious to the music.

Tonight we will gather and hear the Kol Nidrei solemnly intoned by the chazzan (cantor). Many people in the room will close their eyes and sway, others will furrow their brow in deep concentration. Between the haunting tune and the reaction of the crowd, you would imagine that this prayer, “Kol Nidrei,” the one that sets the tone for the entire Yom Kippur, would be a truly profound and moving prayer. Yet, when you turn your attention to the English translation you will find that it’s more or less a technical statement that “the vows that I make shall be null.”

Is that the best we’ve got? Is that all we could come up with to begin Yom Kippur??

Here’s the key - dig a little deeper and you will find treasures:

The prayer begins with the words “Kol Nidrei V’esorei.” Hebrew is a very precise language, and therefore often a word can have a different connotation depending on the context. “Kol Nidro V’esorei.” The word “V’esorei” in this context can mean “that which binds me.”

When Yom Kippur begins, we turn to G-d and we say: We are are letting go - we are no longer allowing ourselves to be defined by the limitations, habits and choices we’ve lived with in the past.

When we communicate our choice to disengage from the negative bonds that constrain us, we pray to G-d that He, too, not treat us in the limited fashion that may be in store for us; rather we ask that the bonds and limitations be removed and that we truly be blessed with a great New Year!

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