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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's with the donkey?

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From some people we learn from their example how to live a good and accomplished life.

From others we learn how not to live and which choices to avoid.

In the entire Torah Moses is consistently considered an exemplar of the former, however a few episodes deliberately included in the Torah (the Divine guidebook for life) highlight the latter.

Everyone knows that Moses was chosen by G-d to redeem the Jewish people. And we all know how that story ends - right? Moses confronts Pharaoh, brings 10 plagues to subdue the Egyptians and everyone lives happily ever after.

What's missing is the fact that Moses actually tried to get out of it. That’s right, for an entire week everything was put on hold; waiting to see if Moses would submit to G-d’s request or not.

And then, when Moses finally accepts G-d’s mission, there is something amazing embedded in the narrative for us to discover.

The Donkey. That’s the one Moses used to transport his family to Egypt. Not just any random donkey - The “known” Donkey.

The commentaries point out that this donkey already had a history. It was the same donkey that had been used by Abraham to transport his equipment to the fateful “Binding of Isaac”.

In that instance, however, Abraham had demonstrated his deep commitment to G-d. He had not wavered for a second. Not only that, he rushed to fulfill G-d’s command.

This message is being conveyed to Moses, all these years later. Abraham had followed G-d’s instruction unhesitatingly. You, Moses, should be doing the same.

Sounds great, right? Highlight a textual anomaly, provide a nice answer and we have a wonderful message.

But it’s not that simple.

You see, when we look to see why Moses was delaying, it’s not as simple anymore. For an entire week Moses was simply requesting that G-d find someone better qualified for the job. Moses felt that he was under-qualified. Only after an entire week of persistence did G-d convince Moses to go ahead and agree to the mission.

G-d is aware of Moses’ strengths and capabilities. But it took Moses himself a week to come to terms with his own strengths and abilities.

All too often we experience the same thing in our personal lives. We know what must be done - and we can do it - but we don’t pull through. We think someone else is more capable or better equipped to accomplish the task.

Time goes by, and nothing is accomplished.

While it is important to recognize and acknowledge one’s weaknesses, it is vitally important to recognize one’s strengths too. Often we know that we are being called on to accomplish something greater, yet we second guess ourselves and our abilities.

And so, life goes on; same old, same old.

A vital message from this week’s Torah narrative is the importance to push aside our self doubt and jump right in to what we know needs to be done.

 

 

Time management and life management

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Some things come naturally to some people but for others they’re a struggle. And I struggle with time management. I constantly try to squeeze in one extra thing, even though (in the back of my mind) I know that I have to leave now to be punctual. I get easily distracted by something important (though not urgent) that comes up - even while I’m supposed to be working on something else.

And worst of all, I can sometimes find myself down a rabbit hole - usually discovering something interesting and informative - yet completely irrelevant.

The best method that I’ve found for dealing with this is to ensure that I start my day by reviewing my calendar and tasks, and knowing clearly which responsibilities are on today’s schedule. When I do that, I find myself much more focused and less easily derailed.

Yesterday morning I found myself getting very easily distracted and I realized that due to an appointment I had first thing in the morning, I hadn’t reviewed my tasks. Of course, once I did, I realized how woefully behind I was…

Here’s the thing though - this time management solution that I’m describing can only work if I’ve made sure to schedule my day and create a list of tasks. If I hadn’t done that yesterday, I would have had nothing to refocus and reorient myself toward today.

In my experience, when I have a very busy day - packed with work and meetings and classes, and I manage to mostly remain focused and accomplish much of what had needed to be done, at the end of the day I feel good. Perhaps somewhat tired, but my mind feels “intact”.

On the other hand, if I have a very busy day filled with similar activities but without the planning, rather just responding to whatever comes up, aside from getting distracted much more easily, I also feel worse at the end of the day. I feel like I’m chasing my tail, like I’m not accomplishing anything - emotionally worn out.

These time management experiences, I think, reflect life in general. A meaningful life is one that is based on a belief system that we then intentionally live out every single day.

The troubling aspect of this is that while it’s fairly common to plan one’s “professional” day, it is much less common for people to plan their life. You might be able to communicate your company’s missions statement with reasonable accuracy, but do have a personal mission statement?

Obviously you can’t plan every aspect of your life, but some things should not change regardless of where your career takes you or in which city you end up living. It is true that everyone experiences distractions and diversions from what they know to be true and correct. However, if your life is one big experience of “going with the flow” (one of those popular sayings that is often more harmful than helpful), your life can feel like you are perpetually chasing your tail and not accomplishing anything.

This week’s Torah portion begins by emphasizing the fact that our forefather Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years. Our sages tell us that these were the 17 best years of his life (17 is the numerical value of the Hebrew word טוב, good). While a superficial overview of his life would reveal that physically this might have been the case, how does it compute that the saintly Jacob would live his most spiritually satisfying years in Egypt? Egypt is described as being filled with debauchery, not exactly a spiritual oasis.

He was able to accomplish this because he lived with intention. His life was oriented around Torah and it’s guidance; he chose how to live and which things would take priority. He certainly didn’t “go with the flow”.  Therefore, although he was surrounded by some of the lowest behaviors on earth, his life was not affected - in fact, he lived his 17 best years in Egypt.

When our life is lived with intention, nothing can interfere with our ability to create the life we want. Even if we will temporarily veer from that path, we have the foundation to which to return.

Joseph the cosmopolitan

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One of the most deep and profound narratives of the Torah is the saga of Joseph and his brothers, a pivotal episode of which is found in this week’s Torah portion. Being that the forefathers - as well as Joseph and his brother’s - were righteous, holy and G-d fearing men, the working understanding is that there is much more to the stories than meets the eye.

One of the lesser discussed subplots of this narrative is the difference between the location that Joseph lived his life and that of his brothers. The location also had much effect on the focus of their lives too.

The Torah highlights the fact that our forefathers were shepherds. In addition to their primary line of work being outside the city, they also dwelled outside the main population centers of the time. Joseph, on the other hand, lived in the capital city of the most influential country of his era and eventually became the de-facto leader of the country.

Despite their initial hesitation, Jacob and his sons all moved down to Egypt too. In other words, initially they lived in relative seclusion. Then, following Joseph’s urging, they too moved to the center of society.

If you’ll look closely at Jewish history, you will discover a similar pattern repeating itself. Initially the Jewish people all lived in the Holy Land, with the Temple as their focal point. But then, following the destruction of the Temple, spread out all over the world.

For generations, even while living in all sorts of countries all around the world, the Jewish population stayed together and lived in close knit communities, hardly interacting with their gentile neighbors. Fast forward to today where the majority of Jewish people live and work among people from all walks of life.

(In the Chabad world too, this pattern exists: Initially the headquarters of the movement was in a tiny village called Lubavitch. Today the headquarters of the movement is in New York City, one of the most influential cities in the world and local Chabad Houses continue to be opened in every corner of the globe.)

While interesting to note, there is obviously something more to the story than mere happenstance.

Our role as Jews has always been to positively influence the world. While we may only constitute a tiny fraction of the global population, we have shown that we are up to the challenge. In fact, the bedrock upon which Western civilization is built, is the moral code first outlined in the Torah.

However it’s difficult to influence anybody if you have no contact with them, that is why throughout history G-d has caused events to happen in order to move us closer to the centers of influence.

The questions is, why then does the cycle continue? Why not simply start and stay in the “thick of things”. Why the pattern - separation and insularity, followed by integration - why not stay on the global stage instead of constantly stepping down, only to take center stage again some time later?

In order to be effective in guiding the world around us (while not being affected by the influences of the world), one must have a solid foundation from which to operate. First develop ourselves, then extend what we’ve learned to other’s.

This highlights why it’s integral to provide our children with a Torah true Jewish education from a young age. This provides the foundation for their life and gives them a solid footing from which to influence the world around them.

This principle is also true to each of us, every day of our lives. We should begin the day with a focus on our connection to G-d. Start the day with prayer and meditation, Torah study and a focus on Mitzvah performance - then we have the foundation from which to approach life and be a force for good in our daily interactions.

A little naivete goes a long way

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Last night Jewish people all over the world lit the 5th Chanukah candle. There’s something unique about the 5th night - it’s the first time we have the majority of the Menorah lit.

There’s an important Chanukah message related to the Menorah, a message that I feel is not discussed as often as it deserves. The truth is that the very same message is related to the very miracle of Chanukah itself.

Think about the act of lighting the Chanukah candles. We begin with but one candle. The second night we add only one more; each night we add just one candle.

When Chanukah begins, there’s much darkness. Even our little light is only one out of eight branches of the Menorah. But with a little persistence and consistency, in due course we find ourselves lighting the majority of the branches. Until in the end, on the eighth night, all eight branches are lit.

It takes a healthy dose of idealism, matched with equal amounts of naivete, to think that you can change the world. The message of Chanukah is a simple yet extremely powerful one: Don’t let the darkness overwhelm and discourage you. Light your flame, ignite your small corner of the world. Add a little more light each day - only one little bit more than before - and before long, with a little persistence and consistency, you will have changed the world for good.

This is truly how the entire Chanukah miracle took place. One simple act of idealism and yes, naivete, brought about a huge miracle.

Think about it - did it make sense to light the one flask of pure oil found by the Maccabees? It would last for only one day - and it would be another seven days until fresh pure oil could be manufactured. What would be accomplished by lighting the flames for that one night, only to leave the Menorah dark for the next seven?

Yet, light it they did. And we know the rest of story: The amazing miracle that took place and the annual celebration we still commemorate every year - over 2000 years later.

Which leads us to an important additional detail. When it comes to increasing in goodness and light we need to retire our self doubt and bring on a little naivete. Yes, our consistency will lead to much more than we imagine. But there’s even more to the story; G-d sees our commitment and dedication and throws a little divine power behind our efforts.

Suddenly our little light miraculously lasts for eight days and changes the world forever.

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