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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.

What not to say

It’s virtually impossible to talk to people nowadays without politics getting mixed into the discussion. I spend my days discussing religion with people, but politics? Not me! Sometimes the cost of not stating my opinion is getting accused of being pro or against one position or another.

But I choose to keep in mind the advice of the Sages who tell us that, “Just as it is an obligation to say something when it will be heeded, so too it is a mitzvah not to say something if it will not be heeded.”

I think many people would do good for themselves and those in their life if they’d keep this dictum in mind and adhered to it.

This quote from the Talmud brings to mind the great story about one of the Chassidic Masters of the previous generation, Reb Yisrael of Vizhnitz. He once visited the office a wealthy bank manager. When he was ushered into the man’s office, he sat down and looked at the banker without saying a word.

Surprised, the man asked as to the purpose of Reb Yisrael’s visit. Reb Yisrael explained, “I’ve come to fulfill the advice of the Sages not to say that which will not be heeded.”

The curious banker assured him that he would listen. Reb Yisrael just sat there without saying a word.

After numerous requests, with the bank manager assuring Reb Yisrael that he would heed the advice, Reb Yisrael relented. “There is a penniless widow who is about to be evicted from her home due to an outstanding balance she owes to your bank. I hoped that you as the manager would ignore her debt, but I was sure you wouldn’t listen, so I have a mitzvah to remain quiet.”

The bank manager interjected, “But I don’t own the bank - I can’t do anything!”

Reb Yisrael sighed, “See! I knew you wouldn’t listen.” With that, he got up and left.

The manager was inspired by Reb Yisrael’s visit and he made it his business to see to it that the widow’s loan was paid - from his own money.

Bottom line - often, (if not always - at least in regards to some topics), better results come about by that which is not said. 

 

Lesson from a skinned knee?

The call went out and everyone responded. Some grabbed what they had but others - the wealthy leaders - said that they’d let everyone else donate, and then they would fill in whatever was missing. The only problem? In the end there was a surplus, nothing was lacking.

This is what happened when Moses announced the building campaign for the Tabernacle in the desert. Everyone ran and got what they could but the Princes, the leaders of the tribes, decided to wait. They certainly had good intentions but at the end of the day, they missed an opportunity.

The next time Moses announced a collection, they were the very first to donate; they had learned their lesson.

The Torah tells us about the Princes and their relatively small donation; Rashi elaborates about their mistake and how they learned from it. While they weren’t able to fix their mistake, they did learn from it.

Sometimes we can rectify a mistake that we’ve made, and other times nothing can be done; we can’t change the past - but we can always learn from our mistakes to make a better choice in the future.

Everything that we experience, whether they’re things that we perceive as good, or things that seem to us as bad, must be a lesson for us in our Divine service and personal growth.

Did you fall and hurt your knee? Did you make a wrong turn? Even if you’ve fallen morally or spiritually; it’s all to teach a lesson and provide an opportunity for growth. 

Foresight 20/20

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“If G-d is real, why doesn’t he show Himself?” Is a common question that I’m asked in various forms at least once a week. And it’s a good question which we can discuss in detail at some point. But the simplest answer is - He does. G-d does reveal Himself, but He only reveals his back.

Just like it’s harder to recognize a person from behind, sometimes it’s difficult to recognize G-d. But just like someone whom we know well is easily recognized - even from behind; with enough familiarity we can recognize G-d in this world, too.

One of the most disturbing stories in the Torah will be read this Shabbat. It’s the narrative of the Golden Calf: Only 40 days after experiencing the unprecedented G-dly revelation at Mount Sinai (itself after witnessing the miracles of the Exodus), the Jewish people created an idol and worshiped it.


I’m not going to get into it’s creation and worship by the Jewish people, rather I’d like to highlight what Moses’ is told after obtaining G-d’s forgiveness for the Jewish people. Moses requested from G-d “show me your face” and G-d replied and  explained how it’s impossible to experience that level of Divine insight. However, G-d continued, “I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by… you will see My back but My face shall not be seen."

It doesn’t take much to see G-d’s presence in everything we do - especially when we think back to how things worked out over time. How often has it happened that you’ve experienced something that was frustrating at the time but later turned out to be good?

When we recognize in hindsight how things have worked out for the best, that’s seeing “G-d’s back”. The trick is to recognize it as such at the time, and not only in hindsight. That’s a skill worth developing. It would save us much unnecessary worry and anxiety. 

Childplay?

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One of the most important Jewish holidays takes place this Sunday. It’s so important that even Yom Kippur is second to it (in some ways). This holiday is called Purim (the formal name of Yom Kippur is Yom HaKippurim which can be translated as the Day That is Like Purim, i.e. second to Purim).

And no, Purim is not a kid’s holiday. Purim is for everyone and it’s observance should be celebrated by everyone. The customs to dress up, make loud noises when Haman’s name is mentioned and to inordinately celebrate somehow made it be thought of as a holiday for kids. (Since when did dressing up, making loud noise and celebrating become the exclusive domain of kids??)

But it truly is a significant holiday with powerful and relevant take away messages  - and everyone would do well for themselves to join the celebration.

Contrary to popular belief, Purim is not the Jewish Halloween and those hamantashen really have nothing to do with Haman. (I mean, do you think it makes sense to highlight the villain who we defeated by naming special cookies after him?)

Then why DO we dress up on Purim? And what’s the deal with Hamantashen?

If you think about it you notice that  all Jewish holidays celebrate some sort of miraculous event. Passover there were 10 plagues, splitting seas and some other amazing miracles sprinkled in for good effect. Chanukah there was a miraculous military victory and oil that miraculously kept on burning.

But Purim, there’s nothing. Take a look at the Megillah (The Scroll of Esther that recounts the story of Purim) you won’t find a single miraculous event. In fact, it’s so un-miraculous (you might say it’s miracle-less) that G-d’s name is not even mentioned in the entire story!

That’s exactly why Purim is so amazing!

Purim celebrates G-d’s behind-the-scenes hand in everything. We don’t experience miracles of biblical proportion today - but we sure do experience G-d’s behind-the-scenes miracles. Those miracles that are from such a lofty G-d source that they become embedded in nature instead of shattering the natural order.

And that’s why we dress up and eat hamantashen (and hide the best candy from the kids) - to celebrate the hidden miracle. We disguise ourselves and eat cookies with a special hidden filling, like G-d was hidden in the story of Purim - but behind the scenes caused the Jewish people to be saved.

The truth is that what happened back then on Purim is true about our daily experience in life. G-d is right here, behind the scenes, causing everything to work exactly as it should.

The future ain’t what it used to be

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“The future ain’t what it used to be.” So goes the saying attributed to (but not coined by) Yogi Berra. And I’m sure many can relate - we tend to look forward to some fabled point in the future when we’ll finally get “there” - whatever “there” means. But when we arrive in the future we realize it’s not all that it’s cranked up to be; we’re still the same person, with the same flaws  - still looking forward to when things will be better.

The past, too - we tend to think nostalgically about some bygone time when we had energy and ideas, when we were idealistic and motivated, younger and more carefree.

The truth is that we tend to think about anything - other than the present. The present is way to confronting; the present demands from us. The past or the future are not demanding, they’re distant and out of our control - it’s easy to daydream about. But the present? The present demands that we do something; it demands that we change how we live, it demands that we adjust our choices and it expects us move.

The theme of this week’s Torah portion emphasizes the importance of changing the present and not thinking about the future. It discusses the design of the Tabernacle in the desert that the Jewish people built over 3,000 years ago. The purpose of the Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments were all to lead to the construction of this physical structure - not to some transcendental experience.

Wouldn’t it make more sense that the Torah would be given as a formula to escape the constraints of this world? Shouldn’t we want to ditch this dark and unG-dly world?

The truth is that it does; the Torah empowers us not to be constrained by what society says and it frees us up from being measured by mundane definitions of success. Torah study affords us the ability to live in the present - according to the values we know to be true - and not get distracted looking forward to some awaited time in the future when “things will be different”.

The future may not be what it used to be, but the present is vastly underappreciated and underrated.

The choices we make in the present - right now - can influence the past and form the future. And most importantly, the present is the only place that we can actually change anything. 

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