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.

Do you or your kids feel left out?

We Jews know how to worry. And when this time of year comes around, we seem to indulge in extra doses.

Many Jewish families are concerned about their kids feeling left out - after all, their classmates are celebrating; they’re decorating their home and anticipating gifts. Jewish parents don’t want their kids to feel left out. (I’ll let you in on a secret - do you know how the “tradition” of giving gifts on Chanukah came about? You know it - when American Jewish parents were afraid that their precious Jewish children would feel left out, or even worse, jealous of their non-Jewish neighbors.)

What are parents worried about? That their kids will be more excited about non-Jewish holidays and culture and come to abandon their Jewish heritage (G-d forbid). How do they respond? By creating a superficial Judaism that reflects the lights and presents of their non-Jewish neighbors.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Because Judaism is not just superficial, it’s not just part of our life; it defines our life. It is who we are and how we should live. This is the key; if we want our kids to mature into involved, observant and active Jewish adults, we need to provide them with a Judaism that is deep and substantive.

At some point in recent history, American Judaism decided that the reason that Jewish observance was in decline was due to the difficulty associated with being Jewish; Hebrew School, synagogue, kosher, Shabbat - all a drag and too much to expect from our kids. So, the decision was made to water it down. Make Judaism a nice cultural thing; Jewish deli, Chanukah presents - simple stuff, sweet and easy to integrate.

The profound mistake they made was that they failed to take into account that a meaningless and superficial Judaism is also one that is easy to drop. Children raised in a Jewish home that is only superficially (and often reluctantly) involved get the message that Judaism is not really worth maintaining. Hence the rapid decline in observance and engagement.

It may seem a little incongruous to you but if you want your kids to remain Jewishly engaged, or if you’re looking to rediscover the Judaism that you feel is missing in your life, the key is to engage in the deep and beautiful observance of mitzvot and Torah study.

Wondering where to start? Hit reply and let’s get the conversation started!

Soviet Propaganda and Overcoming Challenges

On July 20th, 1969, the Soviet propaganda machine was faced with a unique challenge: how to report the news that the US had effectively won the Space Race while maintaining Soviet “dignity”. Here’s what they came up with: For the past 10 years all the worlds super powers have been engaged in an intense Space Race. The race was won yesterday with the Soviet Union coming in second place and the United States coming in second to last. (Remember, there were only two nations engaged in the Space Race at the time.)

When someone has a certain agenda, they can distort anything - even what they see with their own eyes - to maintain their bias. When it comes to solving a problem, especially a serious and difficult one, we are very creative in finding ways to avoid the hard, and often painful, work.

A possibly less damaging, but in reality more insidious hurdle to solving serious challenges is crying. Yes, crying. It’s not unheard of for people to cry when faced with overwhelming challenges. In fact, you could argue that it’s normal and ok. And although it’s true that it’s normal and ok, it doesn’t help solve the problem.

There is a fascinating commentary on a detail of the narrative of Yosef and his brothers (which comes to it’s apex in this week’s Torah portion) that highlights this point.

When Yosef finally reveals his true identity to his brothers, the Torah describes a bittersweet moment that occurs between Yosef and his only brother from the same mother, Benyamin. They embrace and they shed bitter tears, seemingly over the 22 years they’ve been apart.

The commentaries though, tell us that the reason that they cried is actually due to what they perceived in each other’s future: Benyamin cried over the destruction of the Mishkan that would later happen in Yosef’s portion and Yosef cried over the destruction of the two Temples that would later happen in Benyamin’s portion.

Sounds fascinating but it leaves us wondering. If they perceived this destruction in their respective futures, why did they cry about the other’s destruction and not their own? Wouldn’t that be the more painful realization? Shouldn’t their own challenges be the cause for their crying?

In fact, this narrative is providing us with great wisdom and guidance; when it comes to our own challenges, when we perceive destruction in our own domain, we can’t cry - we must act! We have work to do to avoid, or at least to rectify, the situation. When we see destruction in another’s domain and we know that there is nothing we can do to assist, that’s when it causes us to cry. But to cry about our own challenges? That’s pointless - there’s so much that needs to be done!!

Remember this the next time you’re faced with a challenge - don’t allow yourself the comfort of crying (and admittedly it is comforting), all it does is distract us from the mission at hand. Instead, get up and start working towards a resolution, even the tiniest step forward is much better than crying.

Why increase?

One of the important themes and universal messages of Chanukah is the importance of continually  increasing. We can’t be satisfied by the spiritual accomplishments of yesterday, we have to add today.

The question is, why? Why is it so important to increase? We’ve accomplished something of value, we’ve achieved a measure of success, why is it so integral to add to it?

The reason is simple, but extremely important to realize: if we’re not moving up, we’re moving down. There is no option of remaining stationary.

Allow me to explain. We are made of a physical body and a G-dly soul. Our physical side is continually pulling us down; in order to be reaching higher we must overpower the downward pull of the body.

It’s like trying to run up a down escalator. Have you ever tried that? As long as you are running up fast enough you will go higher, if you slow down you might remain in one spot. But if you stop, you will be going down.

That’s why it is so important to continually add and never be satisfied by the truly wonderful accomplishments of yesterday. Chanukah teaches us this; we may have achieved much yesterday, we lit a candle that has pierced the darkness. But today, we have to accomplish more. Today, one candle won’t be enough; we have to light an additional one.

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