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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.

WIIFM?

Everyone had relaxed and made themselves as comfortable as they could get on the international flight, when suddenly the plane began to shake violently. The captain turned on the fasten seatbelt alert and for the next 30 minutes the passengers endured the worst turbulence they had ever experienced.

During a short lull in the shaking, a petrified woman turned to the rabbi sitting next to her and exclaimed, “Rabbi, do something!!” The Rabbi calmly turned to her and replied, “Sorry ma’am, I’m in marketing, not management.”

They say this actually happened to Rabbi Immanuel Schochet OBM. And he is right - rabbis are not in control of the world, they’re simply G-d’s marketing department - especially Chabad rabbis. But who are we marketing Judaism to? Jews who are interested in Judaism already seek out sources of learning. We don’t proselytize, do we?

Although there are Jews who are looking for what we are teaching, there are unfortunately many others who don’t even know what they’re missing. Let alone looking for it.

The goal of a good marketing campaign is to help potential customers realize that they really need the product that is being sold. That their life will get better because of it. And in reality, that is our goal too - to help fellow Jews discover their need for Judaism. The truth is, every Jew is intrinsically connected to G-d and His Torah; our job is to help them realize that they should engage with it, study it and live it, too.

There’s a surprising lesson in this week’s Torah portion that highlights this inherent connection. As you likely know, the Torah is a guidebook for life; the very word Torah means guidance or instruction. With that in mind, this week’s Torah portion raises a few questions. The themes this week vary from the story of Pinchas to the laws of inheritance and the sacrifices offered on Jewish holidays, among other themes.

While we have to find lessons in each of them, perhaps one of the more challenging is the laws of inheriting the land. How does this one time event have relevance to us? When we examine a little closer, we find that in fact there were three methods of dividing the land: 1) Proportionary portions i.e. according to the size of each tribe 2) Lottery i.e. not dependent on size, simply according to a lottery 3) Inheritance i.e. not dependent on any determinations other being the descendant of the inheritor.

All this is interesting, and we can delve into how all three were used in determining which tribe was allotted which portion. But, as they say in marketing, WIIFM? What’s in it for me? How is this detailed overview of this one time event relevant to my life?

Here’s the scoop - the connection to the land reflects our connection to G-d. On one level we relate to G-d on a proportional basis, He provides us with sustenance - so we give thanks. We do a mitzvah, so He rewards us accordingly - i.e. a proportional relationship, one based on the effort we invest.

But there is a deeper level of connection, the lottery level. A lottery is a reward that is not proportional to the investment. This reflects our connection to G-d that is deeper than what we do or don’t do. This level of connection is an essential bond.

The lottery level of connection is deeper than the first, but there is a deeper one still: The inheritance. An inheritance in Jewish law is different than a usual transfer of property from one person to the next. An heir is not considered a new owner - the heir is considered the continuation of the original owner’s title. This is because a parent and child are essentially one. The child is created from the very being of the parents, the child shares the parent's DNA. This level of connection reflects a level of unity in which there is truly no distinction between G-d and the Jew - they are truly one and the same. The essence of every Jew is the soul, a literal “part” of G-d.

So our work is cut out for us - rabbis have lots to do. We have to help everyone discover what it is that is lacking in their life; a stronger connection to their core. We help fellow Jews uncover and strengthen their innate personal connection with G-d. 

Be in the know

This morning, David, an exterminator originally from Romania, came to my house to spray some pesticide. Earlier this week our landlord had a tree removed which must have displaced an army of ants, and it seemed that they all decided to decamp to our home.

It didn’t take too long and he was done but he wasn’t ready to leave - he had a Jewish question. With the Menorah in front of our house, the mezuzahs on every door and the yarmulkah on my head - he somehow deduced that I’m Jewish. He wanted to know if we believe in the New Testament and the so-called Messiah that it promotes.

I explained that we do not believe in him - not as a so-called Messiah, nor a prophet and of course not the “son of god.” And we consider the New Testament to be a fictional work, at best. He was shocked! I had confirmed all the rumors that he had heard about Jews.

But he was very curious as to why we believe differently than him and we had a very respectful conversation. As sensitively as I could, I explained that as Jews we follow the Torah - what he might refer to as the Old Testament. And being that the Torah tells us not to follow false prophets, who tell us to change the Torah  - even if they perform miracles - we wouldn’t follow his so-called prophet/Messiah either. We discussed what the Messiah is supposed to accomplish and noted that none of it has yet occurred.

I shared with him some resources for further study and then he left. As he left, it occurred to me that it’s perfect timing to be discussing the details of the imminent arrival of the true Messiah and the belief in the one true G-d of Israel. You see, this week’s Torah portion contains the prophecy of a non-Jewish prophet named Balaam. He is the one who first prophesied about the future redemption.

Additionally, this weekend begins the Three Weeks, a period of mourning and introspection commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. But it’s not only about mourning the past, it’s also about looking toward the future - anticipating the ultimate redemption with Moshiach. The very destruction and devastation contain the potential for the renewal and rebuilding.

Everyone knows that as Jews we don’t proselytize; we don’t seek out potential converts to Judaism. We’re comfortable enough in “our own skin,” we don’t need to get everyone to agree with us. But many people are not aware that we do have the responsibility to promote the belief in one G-d; the idea that this world was created with a purpose and it’s up to us, collectively, to fulfill it.

But in order to teach and share, we have to be aware - we must be well versed in our own heritage. Expanding our Jewish literacy is so integral - it’s literally the key to the future. How can we raise proud Jewish children, if we don’t know enough ourselves? How can we properly answer a question from an exterminator (or anyone else that asks) - if we’re not experts in our own heritage? How can we be proud and observant Jews if we don’t know what it is all about?

It’s always a good time to add in Torah learning, but this season it is even more relevant. Take out your calendar and look at it; find some time in your day and schedule it. We schedule meetings and doctors appointments - why not schedule Torah study too? 

 

Snakes on staffs and your life

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Many people assume that the source of the widely used medical symbol of a snake on a staff is the Rod of Asclepius. I’d say that the source of that serpent-entwined staff in Greek Mythology itself is from this week’s Torah portion.

On a side note, one argument that is presented as Biblical criticism always seemed strange to me. The argument that the stories of the Torah can’t be true because all these other ancient traditions incorporated similar stories. To me that always seemed to argue for, rather than against, the veracity of Torah. It seems to me, that if a truly impactful event took place, we would find record of it in other sources too. Doesn’t the popularity of the stories that reflect biblical events, point to their historicity?

Whatever the case, the story in the week’s Torah portion is instructive: As a result of the Israelites yet again voicing their discontent with G-d’s plan for them, venomous snakes attacked. Anyone who was bitten would rapidly die. Moses fashioned a snake on a staff and whoever was bitten but looked at the staff would be healed. The commentaries point out that it wasn’t viewing the snake on the staff per se that cause healing, rather when they looked upward toward the staff they were reminded of G-d. Their repentance is what saved them.

The lesson is an important one, and doctors and their patients today should keep this in mind. G-d is the one who causes the illness and it is ultimately G-d who heals too. The doctor is a simple messenger. Doctors often get a little too confident in their ability to heal; sometimes they need to remember with Whom they are partnering in their important work.

This lesson is not only for doctors and it’s not only with regards to healing. In every area of our life; the key to success and a healthy balance is remembering our partnership with G-d. This keeps us engaged but not overwhelmed. This enables us to maintain a healthy level of involvement but allows us to maintain our priorities.

Remembering our partnership with G-d is a worthwhile investment in every regard. And the best part - it’s a long term solution!

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