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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.

Laughter is the best medicine

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They say that “Laughter is the best medicine,” and based on my limited research it’s what the experts say too. (BTW did you know that my full Jewish name - Yosef Yitzchok - means “increased laughter”?)

Laughter, it turns out, is not funny business; it’s highly important for a fulfilled life. In fact, did you know that one of the great scholars of the Talmud, Rabbah, was known to begin each lesson with a joke. His intention? Not like a typical speaker that needs to draw in the crowd - his crowd, his students, were dialed in already - he did it because laughter opens us up for greater achievement and deeper understanding.

Laughter is powerful in so many areas of life; relieving stress, improving your relationships and even your job. And yes, according to Rabbah, even helps you better understand your studies.

Why is joy - especially as epitomized by laughter - so powerful? When one is in a joyous mood they feel less inhibited, more expansive and generous. And in a spiritual sense too, when one is joyous it is reflected from Above and the flow of blessing from on High are moved to broader and more expansive channels.

Perhaps this is why Abraham and his wife Sarah laughed when they heard that they would be giving birth to a son at their advanced age - this response of theirs actually opened up broader channels of blessing from on High, miraculously enabling them to conceive a child.

And what name did they give their son? You guessed it! Yitzchak (Isaac), which means “laughter”.

So give it a try - instead of sighing, try laughing. It’s definitely worth the investment!

An Eternal People

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The Jewish people; the eternal people. Eternal? That’s a pretty powerful word. We can’t even fathom what it really means, how can something actually be eternal?!

The truth is, nothing physical can be eternal on it’s own accord and we will not physically be here to witness this eternal nature of the Jew. But we can make assumptions about the future based on past evidence.

And the evidence is pretty compelling.

Throughout the ages the Jewish people have never been the majority or the most powerful nation. In fact, that’s by Hashem’s design. In addition, we’ve always been the target of hatred and violence. Yet no matter who tried, they all failed to wipe us out.

If the Jewish people were subject to the laws of nature we would no longer be here, just as other nations - much larger and more powerful nations at that - are no longer here.

The Jewish people are eternal. We are not constrained by the rules of the physical world.

Likewise, our connection to Hashem is higher than, and not limited by, nature. This is reflected in the difference between the two sons of Abraham, the first Jew. Ishmael was born in a natural manner; Isaac was born in a miraculous manner. Ishmael was circumcised when he was 13 years old; Isaac at 8 days old.

Isaac, the son of Abraham who is the ancestor of the Jewish people, was higher than nature by his very birth. His circumcision was done when he was 8 days old - emphasizing a connection to Hashem that is beyond rational consideration.

We, every single Jew alive today, have inherited this ability - we are not limited by the rules of nature. When we ignore the admittedly rational considerations of the world and do what Hashem asks of us, that’s when we are truly living a Jewish life.

Recalibrate

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“Life is hard.” Anyone ever told that to you when you were having a tough time? Didn’t help make it any easier, did it?

If you think life has ever been difficult to you, let me tell you about the person I met this week. Due to a very unfortunate turn of events - and not guilty of any crime - this person sat in prison for 45 days and still has thousands of dollars in fines that needs to be paid.

But hearing about other people’s troubles doesn’t make yours any easier to cope with, right?

So what can help us through the tough times? What can help us overcome, rather than be overwhelmed? What can empower us to achieve our goals even after we’ve been knocked down?

The answer is embedded in this week’s Torah portion. You might have learnt the narrative of The Great Deluge recounted in this week’s portion as some sort of fairy tail, you might view it as an entertaining movie; but what you really should see in it is the story of your life.

Think about it - in the beginning there was this idealistic, perfect world. Everything was wonderful for a while but over time reality set in, human nature went awry until it came to the point that G-d decided to completely reset the whole thing. He brought the flood and destroyed the world, save Noah, his family and a sampling of all animal life.

Then, after Noah exited the ark, G-d told him something very strange. G-d promised never to do it again; never again will G-d destroy the world. G-d even made a covenant with Noah regarding it - He showed Noah the sign of the rainbow as His way of remembering this covenant.

Let me ask you a simple question however - why should this time be different? It would seem that G-d is (so to speak) being a little naive. I mean, how can we know how things will be in a few generations? Maybe 10 generations down the line humanity will have once again deteriorated to the point that destruction will once again be necessary?! How then can G-d pledge to never again destroy the world?

Here’s the point - initially G-d created the world on His terms according to His high standards; it wasn’t fully aligned with the reality of the fallible human beings that inhabited it. After the flood, the world was recalibrated as it were to fit with humanity. This newly aligned world wasn’t under threat of being destroyed because it took into account the possibility for mistakes to happen and it included a contingency for when they would.

In other words, the world as it was initially created, in it’s idealistic state, wasn’t viable and needed to be reset. The world after the flood integrated the G-dly ideal in a way that was - and still is - sustainable.

What emerges from this understanding is that in truth, the narrative of The Great Deluge is not one of destruction and devastation - it’s primary message is one of hope and inspiration: there is purpose in the setbacks. There is long term success embedded in short term failure.

Being told that life is hard doesn’t make it easier to overcome the hardship; being told about other people’s challenges doesn’t make it easier to overcome your own. But finding the lesson and meaning in the setbacks - that gives us the ability to create a long term successful model for life.

Is Creation just a conspiracy theory?

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It's arguably the best conspiracy theory of all time; the creation narrative in this week's Torah portion was not witnessed by any of us and is still not entirely verifiable scientifically - the typical way that we verify things today. So why then is it so important?

In fact, why is the creation narrative included in the Torah at all? The Torah (as its name indicates) is a book of instruction and guidance; why then does the entire first book deal with stories? They may be interesting stories, but they're seemingly misplaced in a book of guidance. Some of the stories teach us about human relationships, but this creation narrative is not exactly things that we could emulate.

So back to our question - what exactly is so important about this story that it is included in the Torah?

The reason is accountability. It's all about accountability - the world is not some random place where insignificant things take place, it is a calculated creation of G-d. We have been purposefully placed here; we're not just biological accidents.

As much as some scientists don’t like the literal interpretation, the creation narrative cannot be completely ruled out. But in truth, it doesn't fully matter - the main point is that G-d created the world, and each one of us, for a purpose. We have a unique mission that only we can fulfill.

That is why the creation narrative in this week's Torah portion is so important.

The above idea is a personal reason but there is a global reason too, and it is relevant to the recent distressing news out of Israel.

Rashi, the great commentator of the Torah, explains the importance of the creation narrative in a geopolitical context. It's all about establishing our moral right to our land. Our right to the Holy Land predates any UN vote or Balfour Decleration. Our right to the land comes from the Creator of the entire universe, He created it and gave it to us.

The reason why we, the Jewish people, have the right to the areas redeemed during the Six Day War is not due to security considerations - it's because it is ours! And unfortunately as long as we are not willing to communicate this to the world, clearly and unequivocally, we will be plagued by physical and political terrorism.

Whenever things are going bad for our brother's and sister's in Israel, we tend to feel helpless and distant. There are however many spiritual things that we can do to assist - men, put on tefillin (if you need help, reply to this email and I'll happily assist); women, light Shabbat candles (tonight no later than 6:17pm). In addition, if it comes up in conversation, you can point out that our right to the land is not a recent development but it has been around for thousands of years and was given to us by non other than G-d Himself.

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