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.

Never let a serious crisis go to waste

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Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor of Chicago and previously the president's Chief of Staff, is famous for lot’s of things. Among them is a quote he once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

A crisis is a highly consequential time and ideas that wouldn’t usually be pursued can sometimes be accomplished due to the emergency. When the stakes are up the motivation is different, and people are more open to make drastic changes that they may not usually be open to doing.

With all that is happening in the world today, many people wring their hands and worry. Iran with nuclear weapons? ISIS seemingly spreading to other parts of the world? Israel is being made more isolated by the day; BDS seems to be spreading! Who knows what’s next?!

This Shabbat we read the haftorah of Nachamu, the famous comforting words of the prophet Isaiah: “Nachamu, nachamu ami” - “Console, console My people.” Why the double expression of comfort? Commentaries say that it’s a double measure of comfort corresponding to the two Temples that were destroyed.

But there’s more.

Interestingly, all Torah narratives of redemption use a double expression. This is true when Abraham is “redeemed” from Ur Kasdim and it’s true when our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt. And it is again found here in reference to the future and ultimate redemption with Moshiach (The Messiah - yes, it’s absolutely a Jewish concept - that’s where they got it from).

Double is more than just two; double represents infinite growth potential. The endless potential that comes with redemption. And you know what? All this chaos in the world actually gives us a unique opportunity to not allow this “crisis to go to waste.” For radical and everlasting positive change to take place, there often needs to be a complete breakdown of the previous paradigm.

And that is what we see happening today.

Don’t get me wrong. What is happening now around the world needs to be confronted by those in positions to do so; the appropriate military and political leaders need to do their jobs. Regular people like me and you need to make our voices heard so that those elected officials, who serve on our behalf, understand the support they have for what is right.

But, there is an entire other side to the story: The spiritual side. In all the chaos there is an opportunity to shift the world in a positive way - every mitzvah that we do combats the darkness in the most potent way. Each time we put on tefillin or light shabbat candles, we make the world into a brighter and holier world; a world that is more conducive to goodness and holiness and less welcoming to evil.

This is our collective job; to strengthen the side of goodness by strengthening our own connection. 

Can G-d violate His own law?


You’re probably familiar on some level or another with the various observances and customs associated with celebrating a Bar Mitzvah; putting on tefillin, getting called to the Torah for an Aliyah and possibly even reading from the Torah. You may not be familiar with the Chabad custom of reciting a Chassidic discourse. This means that in addition to the responsibility of preparing the Torah portion there is also the added preparation needed to be able to recite (from memory) the entire discourse.

One of the basic ideas that is contained in that discourse is the concept of Hashem fulfilling all the Mitzvahs that we have been given to observe. Here’s an interesting question - if Hashem fulfills all the mItzvahs of the Torah, then how could Hashem destroy the Temple?

This Sunday is the date on which we annually commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (in the year 69). We fast for the entire 24+ hours, we say extra prayers and we look forward to the time that Hashem will rebuild the Temple. But the question is - how could it be that Hashem would violate one of His own laws? You see, the Torah prohibits the Temple’s destruction.

The Torah explicitly instructs the Jewish people that upon entering the Holy Land they’d have to destroy all remnants of the rampant idol worship that had been predominant. The Torah then continues, “You shall not do this (i.e. destroy or desecrate a place of worship) to Hashem your G-d.” Which means that there exists an actual biblical prohibition against destroying (even a part of) the Holy Temple. And just as we are obligated by law to respect the Temple and not destroy it, so too Hashem is bound by that Mitzvah. Well, if that’s the case, what’s Hashem’s excuse? How could He destroy the Temple? How could He allow its destruction?

There can only be one conclusion (and in fact this is alluded to in many verses); that the destruction was not the final purpose, it was a step in the process of ultimately rebuilding the Holy Temple.

This then explains how it’s possible for Hashem to destroy the Holy Temple - because the destruction is not the goal, the rebuilding is. And if someone is destroying something in order to rebuild it in a greater and more impressive manner, in that case the destruction itself is considered part of the process of rebuilding.

This all sounds nice perhaps, but what practical difference does it make? The Temple was still destroyed and it is still not rebuilt. The legal reasoning how Hashem “is allowed” to do so doesn’t change the facts on the ground!?

Or does it? The understanding that this process of destruction is actually part of a greater rebuilding (in addition to helping to make the experience that much more bearable), allows us to realize our ability to complete the process and bring complete redemption to this world.

If the process of destruction was only that - destruction, then we would need significant effort to reverse the trend. We would need to make a fundamental “change in the system” in order to bring redemption to the world. But considering the above idea, that the entire destruction is part of the rebuilding, empowers us to actually complete the process and make this world once again into a place of spirituality, holiness and G-dliness.

Dislike the idea, not the person

Iran Deal.jpg 

Even with all the things going on nowadays, the news this week was dominated with the emerging deal with Iran. The President and his allies have hailed it as a major diplomatic achievement, while many others passionately spoke out against it. In a rare moment of unity, all the major political parties in Israel communicated their deep concern regarding this treaty and Jewish groups in the United States also shared their reservations.

As a rule I don’t get politically involved - our job is to bring every Jew closer to their own heritage and not just reach out to Jews who agree with me politically. Many of my colleagues argue that this case is different, “there is the real possibility that this could lead - Heaven forbid! - to the destruction of the Jewish people living in the Holy Land,” they say.

And it’s true. The implications of this deal are immense. Take into account that the Iranians have consistently and publicly demonstrated their hatred for Israel and the West, even as recently as last week. In addition, they haven’t let up on their financial and material support of terrorist groups and they haven’t got a very honest track record, to say the least.

The timing of this news is quite fascinating in a number of ways and in my opinion has some very important lessons for us all.

First, the weekly Torah portion. This week we read about the request of two and a half of the tribes of Israel. After 40 years of waiting to enter the Land of Israel, they requested to settle outside the land, across the Jordan, in a region that had ideal conditions for their many flock. At first Moshe was angered by the request - “Shall your brethren go to war while you sit here?” He asked them. Do you think that by settling outside the land you can avoid the destiny of your brethren?

We often think that since we live outside of Israel that we don’t have to be all that concerned with what is happening there. The truth is that we are one people and no matter where we live, we share the destiny of our brothers and sisters in Israel. And not only on a metaphysical level, also on a practical one - Israel may be on the frontlines, but we’re not that far behind. What happens to them is extremely relevant to us.

Second, the time on the Jewish calendar. Today is the beginning of the month of Av, in the middle of the Three Weeks, the time when we mourn the destruction of the Temple many years ago. Our sages tell us that the cause of the destruction was the fact that the Jewish people then didn’t treat each other with the due respect they deserved.

Then, as now, there were vigorous debates as to how to deal with the nations that were threatening the Jewish people. Some felt diplomacy would achieve long term stability and others felt that only a military confrontation will achieve their goals. In recounting the events that caused the subsequent destruction of the Holy Temple, the Talmud doesn’t take a side in the political arguments of the time. It only notes that the destruction and persecution that followed were a result of the fact that the people allowed their disagreement to turn into animosity and hatred among themselves.

Let us learn this important lesson from our history; whatever your position on the Iran deal, or any other important matter today, it’s integral to always keep in mind: You can disagree but don’t be disagreeable.

May we have good news to share.

Just Like Going to the Dentist


A woman and her husband interrupted their vacation to go to the dentist. "I want a tooth pulled, and I don't want Novacaine because I'm in a big hurry," the woman said. "Just extract the tooth as quickly as possible, and we'll be on our way." The dentist was quite impressed. "You're certainly a courageous woman," he said. "Which tooth is it?" The woman turned to her husband and said, "Show him your tooth, dear."

This morning I was lucky enough to have a dentist appointment. It was just a routine checkup and no teeth were pulled (although I was told that, after getting away with it for so many years, I may finally need to have my wisdom teeth pulled…) but a visit to the dentist is never a pleasant experience.

Of course it got me thinking; nobody enjoys going to the dentist, but those of us who are concerned for their long term well being ensure to visit a dentist regularly. In other words, we willingly do something that is not comfortable (and may even be painful) in order to avoid a potentially worse outcome in the future.

Modern society often advances the notion of doing what “feels right.” Often, as the years pass, we begin to see the world and our place in it with a much deeper and broader margin-top:0pt;margin-bottom:10pt;">Just like there are choices in life that can be less popular but still entirely necessary, so too there are occasions when it is necessary to take a stand and affirm a position that is not necessarily popularly accepted.

This week’s Torah portion is named after Pinchas, the Torah’s paragon for someone who wasn’t afraid to take an unpopular position. He wasn’t intimidated by what other people thought or what his neighbors would whisper behind his back. He was determined to stand up for what was right and just.

Let us take an example from Pinchas and make choices that are based on what the Torah teaches us is right and not allow ourselves to be intimidated by what those around us may think or say. This is true for adults, but it’s even more important for children. Parents have an obligation to raise their children in a way that empowers them to make choices based on what is right, not based on what is easiest or most enjoyable.



Whatever your opinion on the Affordable Care Act may be, I'm sure you'll agree that President Obama probably doesn't mind if it's called Obamacare. He's obviously proud of that piece of legislation which he managed to get signed into law. I think you'd also agree that it would be out of place if it were called CruzCare or McConnellCare (or even SCOTUScare, as Justice Scalia suggested).

The name of a piece of legislation usually would reflect the person or people behind it. Definitely not the names of people who oppose it.

Similarly, the name of this week's Torah portion, Balak, seems out of place: It's named after the villain who tried to destroy the Jewish people! Although he wasn't successful, he did manage to cause the deaths of over 100,000 Jewish people.

So why is the portion named after him? It's almost like naming the ACA after Sen. Ted Cruz!

Here’s the thing - there's something unique about this week's portion: It's all about dramatic transformation. Balaam, the non-Jewish prophet, was hired by Balak, the evil king, to curse the Jewish people. However, at the end of the day, instead of raining curses he showered the most beautiful blessings on the Jewish people. And not just regular blessings either. These blessings include one of the few references in the Torah to the future era of Moshiach. The time when this world will reach a state of perfection and G-dliness will be apparent and revealed.

And there's more! Not only were Balaam's curses transformed into blessings, Balak himself - the wicked conspirator of this whole attempted cursing spree - experienced transformation. Ok, it wasn't Balak himself, rather his descendants. And not in a small way - the very individual who attempted to do away with the Jewish people - is also the ancestor of Moshiach.

Yes, you read that right. Balak was the king of Moab and one of his descendants was Ruth. She later converted to Judaism and her great grandson was non other than King David. And you guessed it - Moshiach is going to be a descendant of King David.

Bottom line? This week is one of dramatic transformation. It can be done - why not try to dramatically transform something of significance in your life? Take something negative and transform it into a positive! There's no better time than the present.

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