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.

Yes, 2020 is the perfect year to be thankful


Thanksgiving is likely the American holiday most closely aligned with Jewish values. And this year, especially considering all the craziness that has recently played out, is definitely the perfect time to be thankful.

Yes, there’s much about which to gripe but that shouldn’t get in our way of recognizing the blessings too. I mean, when President Lincoln instituted a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens" in 1863, it was still in the middle of the Civil War for goodness sake!

Which highlights a profoundly different perspective of the entire concept of Thanksgiving; it’s not (only) about appreciating the openly good aspects of our life, it’s also about recognizing the blessings within the difficulty that we face too.

We read in this week’s Torah portion about Jacob our forefather who suffered for years under his father in law Laban. Laban was a duplicitous and conniving individual who rescinded every agreement that didn’t result to his benefit. Jacob suffered under Laban for 20 bitter years, constantly being duped and lied to.

Why did Jacob have to endure these 20 difficult years? Chassidic thought explains that Jacob’s experience with Laban was in order to extract “sparks of holiness” that were hidden by Laban. In other words, there was a benefit to be found in all of Jacob’s suffering.

In our own lives too, it’s important to remember that when we experience difficulty, the entire purpose of these setbacks and obstacles are to enable us to grow.

Thanksgiving is not only about recognizing the open blessings in our life (and we all, without exception, have many for which to be thankful); it’s also about realizing that the challenges we face enable us to grow.

Instead of being cynical about Thanksgiving 2020, or bemoaning our current situation, it’s time we discover the inner strength and fortitude we each have.

Now is a good time to step up and express what our recent experiences have taught us, and that’s worthy of true thankfulness and gratitude.

Even better, use that gratitude as a stepping stone to implement positive change in your environment.

Have You Ever Been Deceived?


Have you ever been deceived? How did it feel? Did you appreciate it? I’d venture to say that no one likes to be deceived. And a deceptive person is appropriately viewed negatively by society.


But what if my perspective made me think I was being deceived? In other words, no one attempted to deceive me but because of my worldview and my perception of reality I assume something incorrectly. Has anyone done anything wrong?


While I might initially feel deceived, when I understand the actual facts I’d likely feel differently.


Let’s explore a particularly peculiar episode in this week’s Torah portion: Yaakov deceiving his father in order to receive his father’s blessings in place of his brother Esav.


What? Yaakov, the straight laced, quiet and honest son deceived his father? He used subterfuge and disguise and had to bend the truth to receive blessings that seemed to rightfully belong to his brother??


Once we’re analyzing, what was Yitzchak, the father of this unlikely pair, thinking in the first place? Bless his wicked son Esav? I get it that Esav was his son after all; but this wasn’t about a simple deviation from family norms - Esav was a known rapist and murderer. Why bless him at all??


Something just doesn’t add up here.


As with much of the Torah, a simple reading doesn’t suffice: Here’s an explanation that perhaps can explain not only the story but help us understand our role in this world.


Yitzchak wanted to bless Esav since he knew that Esav’s primary frame of existence was within the physical world. Yitzchak hoped that the blessing would provide Esav the ability to rectify his past mistakes and partner with his brother Yaakov. Yitzchak hoped that the material blessing that Esav would receive would then be used to help Yaakov in his Divine service and study.


However, Yitzchak’s wife and the mother of this motley pair, knew it wasn’t meant to be (at least not yet). She intervened and orchestrated the grand deception, having Yaakov disguised as his brother and ensuring that he received the blessings.


While Yitzchak thought it would be possible to separate the spiritual and the physical, Rivkah understood that the two need to work together. Yaakov, as the progenitor of the Jewish people, needed to be engaged with the physical world - not only the spiritual.


And that’s where the real accusations of deception come about. Yaakov, whose primary role was that of spiritual matters and connection to Hashem, was suddenly seeking blessing in material matters. And the truth is he wasn’t interested in the material in and of itself, his purpose was to elevate the material world, to promote an appreciation for G-dliness within the physical.


On the surface it may seem that Yaakov - and by extension all of us, his descendants - was interested in the material blessings for the physical benefit and pleasure that comes along with it. But that’s not the case, the core of all physical matter is G-dliness and revealing that was Yaakov’s goal.


Deceptive? Perhaps in perception. But in reality, it’s the ultimate truth.


How Do You Maintain Your Sanity?


There’s so much noise out there, how do you maintain your sanity?


While it’s always been a struggle, recent events - along with the 24 hour news cycle and all the social media distraction - have magnified the problem and made the question all the more urgent.


The good news is that the solution is actually really simple. While implementing the solution is not quite as simple, the good news is that we each have all the tools we need to be successful at it.


Despite what it may feel like at times, we are in full control of what comes into our orbit. In addition, we can only think about one thing at a time. Put the two together and we have a simple solution: Choose to think about positive things.


There’s a Chassidic tale about an individual struggling with this exact issue. His Rebbe (Chassidic Master) suggested that he travel to a particular town to discuss the matter with an outstanding rabbi there.


He arrived late at night, the entire town was dark - except for one home. He correctly assumed that the rabbi lived there and promptly knocked on the door. No answer. Glancing through the window he could see the rabbi studying. He knocked again.


Again, no answer.


He tried again, this time a little louder. Still no answer. He was tired and cold but no matter how many times he knocked the rabbi never answered the door. Eventually he gave up and ended up sleeping on the doorstep.


As the sun rose, the rabbi suddenly opened the door and found him sleeping on the doorstep. “Please come in, make yourself comfortable! Can I get you a warm drink?” The rabbi was inviting and friendly and he graciously accepted the invitation.


After he had relaxed and warmed up a little, he explained the purpose of his visit. The rabbi listened intently and when he finished explaining how much he struggled with controlling his thoughts the rabbi exclaimed, “I taught you this lesson already!”


Confused, he asked for an explanation. “When you arrived,” the rabbi explained, “you knocked on my door. But I didn’t answer the door and wouldn’t allow you to enter my home”.


“All sorts of thoughts try to enter our minds” the rabbi continued, “it’s up to us to decide which we allow to enter and which we leave outside”.


While it’s easy to say, if we don’t fill “our home” (i.e. our mind, our life) with positive and nourishing thoughts, our life will always be one big struggle. The key to success is actively filling our mind and life with goodness and light.


An interesting and relevant detail is mentioned in this week’s Torah portion. Almost in passing, we’re told about our patriarch Yitzchak when he marries his wife Rivka; that she comforted him after his mother’s passing. Further we’re told that she replaced the miraculous effect of his mother.


When his mother would light the Shabbat candles the light would miraculously last the entire week. That stopped when she passed. Although candles were still lit for Friday night, their effect was not as powerful as when she had been alive. Until Rivkah came along.


This speaks to the powerful effect of the women on the home and the influence they carry. But it’s relevant to all of us as well.


We are the ones who choose the environment in which we live. While we can’t necessarily change anything outside our door, we can certainly choose what to allow inside. We create the environment in our home and in our mind.


When we create a home of light and peace, when we control the door and only allow in the right ideas and attitudes, our home is consistently alight with the peaceful “light of Shabbat”.


So instead of complaining about the noise and distraction from outside, instead of struggling with it, close the door. Choose what to allow entry and - critically - what to deny. And set about lighting your home and life with holiness and peace.


Getting unstuck

 Down and Out.jpg

It’s typical to withdraw inwardly when feeling down and out of sorts. When feeling sick, most people spend their time alone, away from others and caring for themselves. This is also the case when people are feeling mentally depleted, overworked or down - for whatever reason. 

While there are times that what’s needed is to indulge in some down time and reset, often the excessive focus on oneself can actually perpetuate the funk, leaving the individual worse than where they started. 

Counterintuitive though it might be, the solution is to work for the benefit of others. When something is highlighted and brought into clearer focus, it’s flaws are magnified as well. Withdrawing brings the focus on oneself and makes us all the more aware of our own frailties and failings. 

Shifting to consider how we can bring benefit and blessing to another swings the focus away from us and getting stuck in our “stuff”. More importantly, it elevates us to another level at which our issues are not true obstacles. 

With our close focus on ourselves, every bump is perceived as an obstacle. Raising above the self to focus on others helps us keep the inevitable bumps in perspective and realize how little they truly can interfere. 

On that note, it’s relevant to mention how our Torah portion begins; Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent searching the horizon for potential guests. Notable is the fact that he was then recovering from his circumcision, having been commanded by G-d at the age of 99. 

While certainly he could have been excused from hosting guests for a few days, he would not allow his discomfort to stop him from looking out for others. 

If you’re feeling down, consider how you can bring benefit and joy to another. The sooner you think about another, the sooner you’ll feel better about yourself. 

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