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.

Thank you, for WHAT?!

miguel-luis-W_6b8pWBUKY-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Miguel Luis on Unsplash 

I’m not sure why everyone is busy reflecting on the past year right now considering that Rosh Hashanah was close to four months ago…

On a more serious note, it’s easy to reflect on the past year (or two) and feel down rather than uplifted. There’s no getting around the fact that the past two years have been tough on everyone. The incessant cacophony of acrimony and accusations in the media, especially as amplified through social channels, only make matters worse. And looking to the future can be downright frightening for so many…

I was reminded today of a profound message that emerges from the Exodus narrative that’s being studied in the weekly Torah portion nowadays.

One of the famous ethical teachings of our sages is that of “hakarat hatov”, appreciating and recognizing the good. And as with many Talmudic teachings, this one too is anchored in scripture. 

There are in fact many biblical sources where this idea is found, including various Mitzvahs that are rooted in this principle (like honoring one’s parents and bikkurim). Other famous biblical examples include Moses not being the one to implement the first three plagues due to his life having been saved by the water and the earth earlier in his life, and the entire people waiting while Moses’ sister Miriam healed before continuing to travel, in appreciation for her waiting and watching over Moses when he was placed in the basket. 

In addition to the examples above, there are many others that highlight the same value. However, when the Talmud wishes to convey this message, the ethical and moral value of recognizing and appreciating the good, a particularly peculiar example is chosen. 

The Torah limits the ability for certain ancient nations to convert to Judaism. It then highlights some exceptions, including the Egyptians. And the reason for the exception? “You were a sojourner in his (i.e. the Egyptians) land.”

That’s interesting. Last I checked we weren’t treated all that well while in Egypt all those years ago. Yet the Torah lists their “hospitality” as the rationale for the conversion exception vis a vis the Egyptians. What’s going on?!

Consider this. While the experience was none too pleasant to say the least, it was however the formative time for our people. We experienced unprecedented population growth in Egypt, transforming in the process from a large family to an entire nation. 

While the slavery was obviously negative, there were nonetheless some positives to be extracted from the experience. And that’s what the sages are highlighting by pointing to this example as the scriptural example of “hakarat hatov”, appreciating and recognizing the good. 

This idea provides a profound and powerful lesson. While these recent years may have been challenging, we have the ability to choose what about them we highlight. Do we focus on the negative or do we find the positive to highlight?

I’m confident that upon reflection we can all find wonderful experiences and lessons from the past couple years that have enriched us, expanded our horizons and facilitated growth. 

My blessing to you as we transition to a new period in time is that you find the positive in all of your experiences - especially the ones that feel so challenging.

I know who you are but who am I?

sammy-williams-ufgOEVZuHgM-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Sammy Williams on Unsplash 

David was walking downtown and was surprised to meet his long lost friend, Moshe. 

“Moshe! It’s so good to see you!” he exclaimed. “My Moshe, how you’ve changed over the years. I hardly recognized you, the glasses, the gray hair – you even look a little shorter…” 

“Excuse me,” replied the man, “but my name is not Moshe.” 

“What!? You even changed your name!!”

It is not all that uncommon that we mistake one person for another but have you ever mistaken your own identity?

Which reminds me of the fellow with the identity crisis. When he was dressed he would be able to differentiate himself from others by the way he was dressed. He struggled though when he was at the bathhouse and everyone looked more or less the same. 

He finally found a therapist who came up with a solution; he was to tie a red string around his big toe and then he would know that he was the guy with the red string on his toe. 

Everything was going swimmingly until one time he was in the bathhouse and the red string came loose and ended up on someone else’s toe. What to do!?

Finally, he walked over to the fellow and said to him, “Excuse me sir, please help me out. I see the red string on your toe so I know who YOU are. But who am I??”

In all seriousness, I think “mistaken identity” can sometimes be the way to describe many modern Jewish people. We have come to think that Judaism is about caring for global warming and social justice, and we seem to have forgotten the holy mission with which we have been charged.

Being confident in our Jewish identity is likely the single most important element of being Jewish today. 

Just like when our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt, the Torah informs us that it was in the merit of their maintaining a distinct identity, apart from the mainstream Egyptian culture of the time, that they were saved. 

Life is full of turbulence. We can make all the plans we’d like but we can never fully anticipate every possible twist and turn. To navigate life we need to maintain a distinct identity that is privy to the whims of society. This anchors us and guides us, and helps us successfully navigate the challenges we face. 

The good news is that while we live in a physical world, we are really “amphibious creatures” – because we have a wholly spiritual side too, our soul. 

It’s not enough to nourish our physical body, we have to remember our spiritual, G-dly side as well. And until we recognize that side of ourselves and nourish it, we will consistently be mistaken about our own identity.

As Jewish people we have a 3300+ year heritage that has helped generations before us maintain their identity and navigate the challenges in their path. 

It’s time we “find ourselves”. It’s time we re-engage in, and strengthen our connection with, our heritage. And the good news is that we don’t have to look very far to find it, it’s right here within us. 

What do you think? I think it’s time to look inside and find yourself!

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