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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.

Time to renovate

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Mach doh Eretz Yisrael, create the environment of Israel, here in your own surroundings,” responded the Tzemach Tzedek. The chasid had hoped to receive a blessing from the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Chabad Rebbe, for his planned move to the Holy Land. The Rebbe, however, had other ideas for him: You want to move to Israel? Israel is defined by it’s elevated spiritual state, it’s a holy land. You can achieve that level of enlightenment here, in your hometown.

It’s true, there is a mitzvah to live in the land (it’s not an actual command that if we don’t fulfill it we are transgressing, but if someone were to move to Israel they would be fulfilling a mitzvah), but not all of us have the ability to live there. Whatever the reason, we still live outside of Israel. Does that mean that we are somehow less Jewish? Is our devotion is of lesser value? Does that mean that we are somehow lacking?

The Tzemach Tzedek informs us that it is not so, on the contrary we can create the atmosphere of the Holy Land in our own space.

You see, our connection to the Land of Israeldidn’t begin in 1948. Our connection to the land didn’t begin in 1917 or in 1897; our connection to the land began thousands of years ago. Our ancestors were promised the land by G-d, after the Exodus from Egypt and forty years in the desert, they entered the land and lived there for over a thousand years (with a small break in the middle). During this time, they spiritually elevated the land, transforming it from just another country on the planet to a holy land.

And we can do this too, to each location that we inhabit. Wherever we live we can transform our area into a holy space. It doesn’t matter what influences reigned before we came along or what values were prevalent before we moved in. After all, our ancestors transformed a land of paganism into The Holy Land.

Although it’s easy to excuse ourselves by saying, “If I lived in New York or LA or wherever, I would be more involved. But here...?” Our national job description, the responsibility of every single Jew, is to spiritually renovate the places where we live. Where before were foreign values and customs we should transform to being a local Eretz Yisrael; a place where holiness, goodness and kindness reign.

“Would you like a blessing to be able to begin again?”

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“Would you like a blessing to be able to begin again?”

Though his mind was clouded by all the vodka he had consumed, Elie Wiesel nodded. “Yes,” he said, even in his half-drunk state he appreciated the Rebbe’s wisdom.

It was Simchat Torah, a time when the theological questions he usually posed to the Rebbe were put aside. “Say L’Chaim,” the Rebbe encouraged him. “Isn’t that the way you were brought up too, in Vishnitz?” But this Simchat Torah, the Rebbe didn’t allow him to suffice with but one L’Chaim, “In Vishnitz they go all the way, just like by us in Lubavitch. Say another L’Chaim.”

Handing him a third L’Chaim, the Rebbe called out, “You deserve a blessing, name it!”

Confused and slightly drunk, Elie Wiesel just looked blankly back at the Rebbe.

“Would you like a blessing to be able to begin again?” The Rebbe gently asked.

On many occasions, while meeting with him in person and in letters, the Rebbe would invariably turn the subject to his personal life, “When will you get married?” Elie knew better than to express to the Rebbe what he was really thinking, namely that it was not a worthwhile investment, especially in such a volatile world that could produce a Holocaust.

When Elie Wiesel was getting married, the Rebbe sent him a large bouquet; when his son was born the Rebbe sent an even larger bouquet.

The most important part of remembering the Holocaust is not actually the remembering part; it's the building of the future that is most critical.

If all we do is make sure the next generation remembers the Holocaust, but we fail in building an engaged, educated and observant Jewish future, we hand the Nazis a posthumous victory from the jaws of their defeat.

If we bring Jewish children into this world and educate them as proud, engaged and informed Jews, only then can we ensure that the military victory over the Nazis translates into a permanent victory.

Eldest Child Syndrome

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Tonight we will celebrate Passover. What exactly is the central message of the holiday? Freedom? Overcoming obstacles? These themes are definitely relevant, but I’d argue that the central theme and message is actually something entirely different.

Everyone knows the last of the Ten Plagues, Death of the Firstborn; but did you know that Moses warned Pharaoh about that plague right from the very start? G-d told Moses to communicate to Pharaoh that the “Children of Israel are my firstborn and if you won’t let them out,” G-d said “I will kill your first born.”

Through the Exodus we were born as a people and collectively became the “Firstborn Son” of G-d. It’s an interesting phenomenon, the Firstborn Son of G-d, what exactly does that mean?

Consider this: The oldest child in a family is often treated differently than the other children. Parents expect the oldest child to help out around the house, often more so than their younger siblings; they’re held to a higher standard (“You should know better, you’re older”) than their siblings and their younger siblings often look up to them as a role model. (I can speak from experience because I’m the eldest child in my family).

Like it or not, the eldest sibling is viewed in many ways as the bridge between generations and is expected to take more responsibility and is often held more accountable by his/her parents.

Eldest siblings often have a difficult time finding their place, on the one hand they are a child yet at the same time they are considered a role model and have greater responsibility. If they try to exploit their position, they’re reminded that they are not the parent; if they try to avoid some responsibility, they’re reminded that they’re the oldest. It can be a difficult position to be in.

So, what does it mean to be the “Firstborn Son of G-d”? It means that we are the bridge between G-d and the rest of the world. We have a heightened responsibility and are more accountable than our “siblings.” And when something goes wrong, we’re the first to be blamed…

So, what is the central theme of Passover? That we have a responsibility to the rest of the world to act as the “Firstborn Son.” We are the ones who have the privilege and responsibility of connecting G-d’s ideals and values with the world. Our job is to be the living example of how an ideal human being acts, both physically and spiritually.

Yes, often the eldest child is resented by the younger siblings, and this is true about us too. However in a healthy family environment, as the family matures the rest of the siblings come to have an appreciation for their oldest sibling.

This Passover let us pledge to live up to the unique privilege and responsibility that we have been given, and let’s hope that soon the entire world will become a little more mature and come to respect us for who we are.

Have a happy and meaningful Passover!

Can our traditions be relevant too?

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Passover is full of tradition: there’s the Matzah, the Maror, the wine and then of course, the brisket. But how can this be relevant to us? We live in the age of amazing technological advances!

After all, cars and planes - we take for granted; today we can use a device (that most of us own) to communicate with anyone on the planet in an instant and we can use the same device to access almost all of known human knowledge. Medicine has advanced to the point that illnesses that were once life threatening are now prevented from occurring and man-made spacecrafts have left the solar system.

Can anachronistic rituals associated with an ancient event really have any relevance to us?

I would be the first to agree that were we to view these rituals as nothing but rote activities, then they would actually be nothing more significant than quaint reminders of the past. But when we take a moment and uncover their meaning, suddenly they are not just rituals anymore. These traditions become our very foundation, providing us the ability to live and remain sane in our fast paced world.

Human beings have a unique gift that is not granted to any other being; we are self aware. We are conscious of our own existence. However, when left unchecked, this awareness can become unhealthy; we can become too self centered. But we are sensitive beings, so when that happens we begin to feel uncomfortable, we are not wired to be self centered. We suddenly feel empty; we have everything, yet we feel lacking. Somehow, something - which we can’t pinpoint - is missing.

This feeling of discomfort leads us to searching for methods to satisfy this emptiness. We try to fill it with new things; a new car, a new house. Or perhaps with experiences like a trip to some exotic place in the world (or in extreme cases, a jump out of a plane).

But the emptiness persists.

Some people medicate themselves in an attempt to quiet this gnawing emptiness; they drink or take drugs only to find that none of this helps.

What is the cure to this human condition? The secret is in the matzah.

When we are too self aware, our internal equilibrium is thrown off. Matzah sets us straight. You see, matzah represents humility; made of only flour and water, it has no fancy ingredients. Bread which rises represents haughtiness, while matzah is never allowed to rise, representing humility.

Life without matzah can be compared to a load of sponges; life with matzah to a load of salt. At first, sponges are light and airy - easy, laid back, no pressure. Living life freely, no restrictions and no commitments. But when walking through the waters of life, the sponges absorb the water and threaten to take us under. A load of salt is heavy - it’s all about responsibility and limitations. But when walking through the waters of life, the salt dissolves and gives us the ability to succeed.

Matzah is not just a relic of the past; it’s the key to the future. This Passover eat Matzah and taste the future.

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