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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.

Purim is over the top!

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Purim is over the top! If you’ve ever properly celebrated Purim (especially with Chabad) you’d know that everything on Purim is done in an excessive manner. We don’t just listen to the story of Purim, we make sure to hear the entire story read twice; we don’t just share some food with a friend - we share at least two foods and usually with multiple friends. And we don’t just give tzedakah, we’re told to give to all who stretch out their hand. 

And while most Jewish holidays include a festive meal, on Purim we’re supposed to eat and drink in excess! Yes, that is how it is legislated in Jewish law.

Purim is over the top because it is not just a celebration of something that happened thousands of years ago. It’s not entirely about Haman and Achashverosh, or even Mordechai and Esther. That would be more like the other holidays we celebrate.

Purim is about us and our personal relationship with G-d. That’s why it’s over the top.

If it sounds like I still have some Purim liquor to work through, hear me out.

Mount Sinai was wondrous; it was the culmination of a miraculous year that included the Ten Plagues, The Exodus, The Splitting of the Sea and many sundry miracles along the way. Then at Mount Sinai, G-d proposed, as it were, to the Jewish people. G-d asked us and we obviously said yes. 

The truth is, how could we not. We owed so much to G-d - He had already invested so much into the ceremony, what else could we say?

But when the time of Purim came along, and life with G-d was not so rosy, were we willing to stick it out and stay by G-d? Or would we take the more pragmatic route and try to blend into society? 

When we chose to stay with G-d, this time without the heady influence of supernatural miracles and grand ceremonies at Mount Sinai, this is cause for a serious celebration!

On Purim we took ownership of our relationship with G-d; when we own something, we are more willing to invest in it. When it’s not entirely ours, we do what we need to but not more.

Purim is about our personal relationship with G-d and that’s why it’s over the top.

While the day of Purim may be almost over, the message of the day continues all the time. Invest in your personal relationship with G-d, the dividends are well worth it!

Give your life a raise

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The contemporary Jew has always faced a certain tension when trying to integrate Judaism with their modern lifestyle. And when we start reading about seemingly antiquated practices it certainly makes it all the more challenging. What, with discussions about the Tabernacle that the Jewish people built in the desert and the sacrifices that were offered there, I mean - seems to me like you couldn’t get more irrelevant than that!

Tabernacle? Sacrifices? Huh? How can that have relevance to me? Especially since it’s been destroyed and out of service for almost 3000 years.

Consider this however, if your life is like most people, it tends to be a whirl of activities and we’re often busy. There always seems to be something going on, whether it’s work, school or family responsibilities - or occasionally the required vacation. We never truly get a moment to reflect. 

But once in a while, on the rare occasion that we do have the opportunity to reflect, a gnawing sense of emptiness creeps in: what’s it all worth anyway? I work, often hard, long and difficult hours. True I earn the means to support myself and my family but what is it all about anyway - is this the entirety of it? Slave away until I wither away?

The Tabernacle narrative can shed some light and help us elevate our lives. In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to the Grand Tabernacle Building Project headed up by Moses himself. And the very first item on the agenda? Of course, like any building project worth its salt, donations. 

The word used to refer to the donations (also the name of this week’s Torah portion) is significant: Terumah. It translates as donation, but truly it means much more than donation. It means elevation; to “raise up.” 

By contributing a portion of their wealth toward this holy building project, they elevated their money - and by extension - their lives. It demonstrated that their life was not simply a selfish experience, work and earn money for their own self centered purpose. Rather it included an elevated and inspired need too, the building of a home for G-d in this world.

By giving away a portion of their wealth they demonstrated that they are not the center of all, that there is a higher purpose, a higher calling. 

Their life was not just about them.

The key to creating a life that feels fuller and more worthwhile is to dedicate a portion of our wealth (and energy and time etc.) to a higher purpose. Giving tzedakah is not just about the recipient, it’s about the giver. And it’s the first step to relieving the tension that exists between the Jew and the world we inhabit. 

It's too legalistic

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It’s too legalistic! That’s the complaint lodged against Judaism for millennia; it’s not a recent thing. From the various denominations in the Jewish community to new age spiritual groups, they all have the same complaint. In fact the world’s largest faith, Christianity, began with the same complaint against Judaism - it’s too legalistic!

Truth is if you think about it, it does seem a little strange, doesn’t it? The Jewish people just encountered G-d in the single most profound spiritual experience ever. And now? Now they’re instructed regarding a litany of seemingly mundane laws.

Wouldn’t it have made more sense for them to strip themselves of their physical shell and meditate all day? Wouldn’t it have been more spiritual if they would have focused on the profundity and oneness of all existence rather than being confronted with their own physicality and fecklessness? 

The reality is that as spiritual as we may feel by undergoing whatever suggested form of meditation, or any other method of achieving spiritual advancement, it is all limited. The very most that we can accomplish by means of our own spiritual development is still entirely constrained by our limited self.

If it’s our meditation, or our work of any sort, it is always going to be limited to our personal capacity. And in relation to G-d, we are virtually nil. We cannot ever reach beyond ourselves - until, that is, we do so on G-d’s terms.

And that’s where the laws come into play. When we live our lives not as we please, but as G-d pleases - that is where the ultimate spirituality is found. That is where we discover the true Oneness. And it is specifically through the laws that we can grow beyond our limited physical existence and become truly one with G-d. 

Decentralized Torah

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Tell me, if you had a monumental task that needed to get done - something that was virtually impossible to accomplish on your own - would you recognize the need to delegate? Do you think it somehow shows deep insight to acknowledge as much?

I didn’t think so - it’s a relatively basic concept. One doesn’t especially need profound and significant insight to realize one person’s limitation. Wouldn’t you agree?

If that’s the case, consider this: Our Torah portion is named Yitro in honor of Moshe’s father in law who advised Moshe regarding how to teach Torah and judge the masses. Initially Moshe was handling it on his own - an obviously unwieldy and unrealistic endeavor. 

So Yitro advised Moshe to set up an organized system; if one had a question it would initially be addressed to a lower level leader, making its way up the chain of command all the way to Moshe, only if the answer had not been obtained from the lower tier judge.

One second, is this what Yitro is credited for? Did Moshe really need his father in law to inform him about the novelty of delegating? Why couldn’t Moshe understand this as well?

Obviously Moshe was not ignorant to this idea but he initially rejected it nonetheless. When a Jew would hear the Torah from Moshe, when a dispute was addressed to Moshe, the individuals in question would be elevated by their interaction with such a Divinely inspired individual as Moshe. As a result of being spiritually raised by Moshe, their confusion or dispute would resolve itself.

Yitro, coming from a physically and spiritually distant place, understood that something even deeper and more profound was necessary. The Torah had to connect with the “real” world too - not just Moshe’s elevated reality.

This idea, among many others included in the narrative regarding the giving of the Torah and the revelation on Mount Sinai, underscore the message of the centrality of decentralized Torah study. While Torah is Divine wisdom and must remain faithful to G-d’s will in order to be authentic, it needs to be connected to our lives and the reality in which we live - not only in the elevated reality of Moshe’s world.

In short, we need to discover personal relevance in the Torah.

 

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