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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.

Being thankful at all times

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Do you know when Thanksgiving became a national holiday? Its roots trace back to the Pilgrims in 1621, and President George Washington proclaimed a national holiday of  thanksgiving in 1789. But it wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln instituted a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens" in 1863, that it became observed as a federal public holiday.

What’s most fascinating about Lincoln’s proclamation is that unlike the Pilgrims, who celebrated Thanksgiving after enjoying a bountiful harvest and were in a time of peace and success, in 1863 the US was still embroiled in a bitter Civil War. Which gives a profoundly different perspective of the entire concept of Thanksgiving; it’s not only about appreciating the openly good aspects of our life, it’s also about recognizing the blessings within the difficulty that we face too.

We read in this week’s Torah portion about Jacob our forefather who suffered for years under his father in law Laban. Laban was a duplicitous and conniving individual who rescinded every agreement that didn’t result in his benefit. Jacob suffered under Laban for 20 years, constantly being duped and lied to.

Why did Jacob have to endure these 20 difficult years? Chassidic thought explains that Jacob’s experience with Laban was in order to extract “sparks of holiness” that were hidden by Laban. In other words, there was a benefit to be found in all of Jacob’s suffering.

In our own lives too, it’s important to remember that when we experience difficulty, the entire purpose of these setbacks and obstacles are to enable us to grow.

Thanksgiving is not only about recognizing the open blessings in our life (and we all, without exception, have many for which to be thankful); it’s also about realizing that the challenges we face enable us to grow. Therefore, as our forefather Jacob, we are thankful for the challenging times as well as the times of revealed blessing.

Wells of Inspiration

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

A survey of Jewish American adults was recently distributed, with the first question being, “Please list one thing that you learned in Hebrew School.” Here are some of the answers:

  • The first commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple.
  • The seventh commandment is: "Thou shalt not admit adultery."
  • David was a Hebrew king skilled at playing the liar. He fought with the Finklesteins, a race of people who lived in Biblical times.
  • Solomon, one of David's sons, had 300 wives and 700 porcupines.

Are your Hebrew School memories as clouded as these ones? Hopefully not. But if you’re like so many Hebrew School graduates, it’s possible that your memory of what you learnt is somewhat fuzzy. Or perhaps you never even had the opportunity to attend Hebrew School. Often I meet people who explain to me that they are not Jewishly involved because they can’t read Hebrew, they don’t keep kosher or some other reason.

The truth is, no matter the status of your Jewish observance, a Jew is defined primarily by their Jewish soul. This fact has surprising ramifications.

When studying the biblical narratives of the Founding Fathers of the Jewish people, an interesting observation can be made: Abraham’s story is recounted in great detail; Jacob’s story is recounted in great detail; but Isaac is hardly featured.

Of the few details the Torah does share, one peculiar detail stands out and seems to be considered a central factor in the narrative: Isaac dug wells. A number of wells, and they were closed up by his detractors and then he re-dug the wells. An interesting detail perhaps, but is this truly such an integral piece of information?

Here’s the thing - a well is not a natural body of water, but then again it is also not entirely man made. The water is always there, but it is concealed beneath the earth. The human contribution is that of removing the earth and revealing what is hidden.

When we are presented with a gift, we treasure it less than something which we personally labored to accomplish. A natural body of water is less appreciated than one in which we toil to uncover.

We each have a uniquely Jewish soul that at times is deeply buried. It is an important detail to emphasis because our Jewish connection is not lacking, it is always within us. Its expression may be lacking but that is just a matter of revealing that which already exists within.

And when we do work to reveal our Jewish soul, it is so much more precious to us - thanks to the effort we invested in uncovering it.

Don’t allow your Hebrew School education - or lack thereof - to impede the expression of your Jewish soul!

Larger than life

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So, the verdict is in. The secret to alleviating stress and the secret to banishing worry about the future; the secret to happiness and the secret to success; and the secret to mastering many other areas of life, are all dependant on one ability: The ability to be selfless.

Selflessness. Get this down and you’ve unlocked the elusive secret for which so many are searching.

Paradoxically we are happier when we are less in control. When we focus less on what we need and more on what we are needed for, we actually get more of what we need and less stress in the process. When we focus less on controlling our destiny and more on trusting G-d’s plan for us, worry slips away.

Happiness is almost automatic when we don’t think about what we need, rather about what we have. Success is a by-product of uncovering our purpose and mission and not concentrating on attaining success.

When we are determined to advance ourselves and remind ourselves and others about what we need, our life can be limited.

And so it continues, an unfortunate half-life plodding (and yes, sometimes prancing) through experiences and eventually ending in death.

If only we can be less selfish and more selfless, then life is more free, much richer, and infinitely more complete.

And then, life doesn’t end with death. Because our life was not defined solely by our physical abilities and accomplishments, it was much greater than that.

This was how our Matriarch Sarah lived her life. This is why this week’s Torah portion, which opens with the account of her passing, is named “The Life of Sarah.”

Her life was not limited to time and space, her life continues to this very day. You owe it to yourself to live a fuller and more complete life - by thinking less about yourself and more about what you’re needed for.

It’s a life-long journey - good luck!! :-)

Don't turn around!

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Some biblical stories just stick in people’s minds. The story of Lot and his family is one of them, and it’s understandable why. There is such vivid imagery; cities being overturned, Lot escaping in the last minute (and don’t forget the part they gloss over in Hebrew School, Lot’s subsequent incest with his daughters).

But perhaps the most imagination capturing detail is what happened to Lot’s wife: After being warned not to, she looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.

A Hebrew School teacher was relating this detail to her class, “Lot’s wife looked back and she turned into a pillar of salt,” she said. Little Johnny in the back raised his hand and shared, “My mother was driving and she looked back and turned into a lampost.”

As always, the Torah shares much more than stories; it provides relevant guidance in our daily lives.

Often we allow our past to shape us, we allow events that may have happened long ago to continue to influence our decisions today. Of course our upbringing is relevant, it shaped how we developed and grew into adulthood, but as thinking adults, we are not limited by it. We shouldn’t fall back on the comfortable excuse of “that’s how I was raised” to explain why we choose a particular lifestyle.

Instead of looking back, we need to look forward. We need to be open to learning and progressing, looking forward - not backward. After all, if we look back we may just turn into a pillar of salt (or worse, into a lampost).

Many American Jews are raised on a watered down Jewish experience, stripped of meaning and relevance; it’s no wonder that they turn away from it after their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Years go by and they become adults, raising their own children, and come to appreciate the depth and significance of Jewish teaching and observance. But instead of looking forward and allowing themselves to grow in Jewish learning and observance, they look back. “It’s the way I was raised,” they say. Or, “I never had a real Jewish education. I can’t even read Hebrew.”

The story of Lot’s wife reminds us that it is imperative to constantly look forward.

Don’t turn into a pillar of salt; no longer growing. Look forward and allow yourself to grow!

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