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.

Are you a bad Jew?

Are you a bad Jew? Too often that’s what people respond when I offer a mitzvah opportunity. “I’m a bad Jew, rabbi. I haven’t done that for years.” Do they think that I’m a priest taking confession or something?

Seriously, there is no such thing as a bad Jew. Some Jews are more observant, others not quite yet, but they’re all good. Yes, really - there is no such thing as a bad Jew. It’s actually impossible. A Jew is defined by their Jewish soul; any person born of a Jewish mother (or converted according to Jewish law) has one and no matter what the body’s choices may be, the soul always remains pure, holy and intimately connected with G-d.

This perspective is at the core of the Chabad philosophy and is what drives us to reach out to every single Jew, no matter their affiliation or lack thereof.

And here is something interesting, we discover this idea in a peculiar place in this week’s Torah portion: the laws of divorce.

Although marriage is a high priority in Judaism, the Torah acknowledges that there may be the need for divorce. In fact, should the situation arise, it’s actually a mitzvah. Without going into the details, the divorce is given from the husband to the wife in front of witnesses. There’s one important detail however, a husband must divorce his wife willingly.

Here’s where it gets interesting. If a husband is not willing to divorce his wife for whatever reason, the court has the authority to force him to. Which raises a question: how could the court force the husband to hand over the divorce if the process needs to be done willingly?

The answer is fascinating - we take into account that his unwillingness to divorce is actually due to his physical body inhibiting his soul’s true desire. In other words, the soul truly desires to do what’s right, in this situation to hand over the divorce. All that’s stopping the soul from accomplishing it’s true desire is this pesky physical body. Well, if we can “convince” the body to give up it’s hesitation - the soul’s true desire to do what’s right can be expressed.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah many Jews are plagued with feelings of guilt, “I know I should go to services on Rosh Hashanah, I know I should hear the sounding of the Shofar. But I’m not religious, I haven’t been actively involved in anything Jewish for ages. I’m such a bad Jew, how can I go?”

My message is this: You’re a good Jew, you have a vibrant Jewish soul. You belong and are a member already. We’ve saved you a seat and we look forward to seeing you.

That’s it, there are no prerequisites or requirements, just show up and allow your soul to feel at home once again. 

Modern monarchy

Some parts of Judaism and Jewish observance and culture are easy to accept and incorporate into our lives. I mean, caring for the sick and respecting one’s parents are values that anyone could get behind and be proud to support.

But then there are the less convenient things; I mean let’s face it - living in Northern California is not the most convenient area to keep kosher or Shabbat. I think that boils down to conviction; if your conviction about the truth of Torah and G-d is strong, that will often translate into observance.

However, there is something which I think is an even more fundamental area of concern for a thinking Jew today: The ideas and ideals of the Torah that, to our Western mindset, seem archaic. You know what I’m referring to - slavery, eradicating entire nations and the like; things that are not exactly in vogue today, to say the least.

Each one is understood differently and there is much wisdom to be discovered, but they’re beyond the scope of this message. I wanted to highlight something from this week’s portion: appointing a king. Appointing a king? Yes, that’s one of the topics of this week’s Torah portion and it’s one that people find difficult to relate to. I mean, a king is the antithesis of our system of government; representation by the people for the people.

So how can I, a thinking Jew, understand this text so that I can be comfortable studying it today?

As with every part of the Torah, the more we study and the better we understand, all the more relevance is discovered. There are few radical ideas that distinguish the Jewish king from any other monarch:

·         A typical king obtained their power by virtue of force and heritage; a Jewish king obtained their power from the people. The people are the one’s who accept the king, the king doesn’t impose his will on them.

·         A typical king would do everything to flaunt their wealth and their power; the Jewish king is required to limit both.

·         And a typical king was the ultimate power in the kingdom and imposed himself and his rule everywhere he could; a Jewish king is commanded to keep in mind that there is a greater power than he, the Ultimate Power in the universe, G-d.

Take a look at these ideas - I have a feeling that you might find them relevant too. When we are cognizant of G-d Above, when we remember that it’s not about us, rather it’s about the purpose and role that we have to serve, life takes on a whole new look. Suddenly we can see more clearly the needs of others, and not only how they can serve us. Suddenly we feel confident enough to give and share from the blessings we have been granted. And suddenly our life is imbued with a sense of purpose and mission.

Perhaps the information about a king is actually not outdated at all? In fact, it seems precisely tailored for our modern era of narcissistic self-centeredness. Maybe the modern monarchy is all about being king over ourselves? 

Becoming a newborn


As you may know, just the other day our family was blessed to welcome a brand new miracle into our lives - the birth of a baby boy. He’ll get his name at his bris next week; we’re looking forward to finding out what it is.

Experiencing a birth is amazing and if you think about it, one of the most optimistic times in life. Whatever the doomsday studies about people’s negative outlooks on the future have to say, parents invariably have optimistic outlooks for their newborn child’s future.

A newborn is all about possibility and opportunity; their whole life is ahead of them and they’ll grow to be adults who will make a difference and succeed.

But our attitude towards our own life, or that of others who have already taken many steps down this road of life, is not as rosy. We view our life through the lens of our failings and challenges. We don’t always consider all the opportunity, instead we wistfully imagine what could have been.

The timing of our son’s birth is informative. You see, this Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh. And not of any month, but of the powerful month of Elul. It is the final month of the year, the one leading up to Rosh Hashanah. The famous parable of “The KIng in the Field” informs us of the remarkable energy contained in this month. It is the month in which Hashem is closer to us than throughout the rest of the year.

The month of Elul, and the High Holidays, is not about feeling guilty. It’s not about judgement in the way you usually think about it. It’s all about possibility and opportunity. Just like a newborn.

If you think about Hashem as some powerful being (with a long white beard) that’s looking harshly down on us and our folly, then yes - the High Holidays has the connotation of fear, guilt and judgement. But if we understand that Hashem is not just some being - albeit more powerful than us, but still limited. Rather we understand that Hashem is in fact our very essence; we are in truth one with Hashem. Then this time of closeness is all about our potential for greatness - no matter what we’ve done or where we’ve been until this point, we can choose to re-engage and immediately transform our life for the better.

Just like a newborn, we each have infinite potential and possibility ahead of us. But we have an advantage, we have our life experience as a solid foundation on which to build. Open yourself to the potential of this powerful month, allow yourself to be affected by its intense energy. You’ll be pleased to meet the new self that emerges at the other end of it.

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