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.

Joy and Sorrow Marching Together


The key to Jewish continuity is embedded in Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer count) which we celebrate today.
Despite never having any formal education, at the age of 40, Akiva the ignorant farmer began his transformation into Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of his time and one of the most influential Jewish leaders in history.
Sadly a number of years later his by now 24,000 scholarly students’ passion led them to disrespect and disregard not just their colleagues' opinions but their character as well. G-d held these students accountable in a way that only the most precious are and a devastating plague killed all but 5 students.
In his mid 70s Rabbí Akiva had lost all that he had spent years building.
Resolve and resilience in the face of enormous adversity is what helped Rabbí Akiva recover and rebuild.
Lag BaOmer also celebrates the passing of one of these students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai; universally known as the Rashbi (an acronym of his name). He was a great sage and scholar, the author of the famous kabbalistic work, the Zohar. Before his passing he requested that the anniversary of his passing (Lag BaOmer) be celebrated.
The central theme oft the Rashbi’s life and therefore that of Lag BaOmer, is the inner secrets of the Torah, the deeper dimension of wisdom that is contained in the kabbalistic works.
When we look at another Jew through the prism of the inner teachings we discover that in fact we are all one. On the surface we may be different beings; on the surface we have different goals and different priorities, but when we peel away the layers we realize that in reality we are all one.
When we study the inner teachings of the Torah contained in Kabbalah, as explained and elaborated upon in Chassidic teachings, we realize that the entire world - all of creation - is essentially one. As we work to reveal this oneness we will hasten the revelation of Moshiach; the entire benefit of which is that, at that point, the entire world will be cognizant of this Oneness and it will no longer be hidden.
While we may not always focus on this reality, we always sense it. That’s why news about Jewish people anywhere in the world affects us so deeply. That’s why this horrible tragedy that happened in Meron last night has deeply traumatized the Jewish world.
Lag BaOmer is supposed to be a special day of celebration, not one of mourning. It’s supposed to be a special day of unity, not one of recrimination.
While it’s impossible for us to make sense of such painful experiences, Lag BaOmer also teaches us that there is more than meets the eye and mustering our resolve and resilience, we still have a Divine mission on this world.
May we have only good news to share!

Just a Cliché?

Some clichés are just that, cliché. Without real depth or significance behind the widely used expression. But some sayings contain deep wisdom that we risk missing out on if they’re simply reduced to a cliché.
“‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ - Rabbi Akiva said, this is an important, foundational principle of the Torah.”
This saying is quoted all the time, so much so that it’s been reduced to a cliché. People say it without grasping it’s depth and everyone dutifully nods in agreement - also without actually “getting” it.
So join me as we analyze a little -

Is it even possible? What if I don’t even love myself? And how is this mitzvah relevant to say, eating Kosher or keeping Shabbat? How is this specific instruction a “foundational principle of the Torah”?
First things first, is it possible - absolutely yes! Does it require a reworking of our typical world view? Also, absolutely yes.
Here’s the deal: The physical reality that we view with our physical eyes is not the entire story. The deeper reality is the Divine energy that maintains the physical. So, “reality” is the Divine; superficial perception is where we usually abide. When we train ourselves to view everything through the elevated Divine prism, our experience is entirely transformed.
We value and truly love ourselves - and every other person we come in contact with - not because of what we (or they) have achieved, but because of our very essence: our Divine soul. And this perspective of reality leads us to the fulfillment of all the other mitzvot of the Torah too.
And the more we bring ourselves in tune with this reality, the more confident we interact, the more intentional we live and the happier we become.

Does G-d Make Mistakes?


Does G-d make mistakes? Yes, actually G-d does make mistakes - through us. Each time we stumble, each time we make a wrong decision or succumb to some sort of temptation, G-d is once again making a mistake.
I guess it would be helpful if I clarified a little.
Deliberately built into the fabric of our universe is the ability to make mistakes - and then rectify and return; to grow from and through them.
G-d put us in this fraught existence knowing that the obstacles in our way could cause us to stumble and fall. And take G-d with us when we do.
However, the intention is not for us to discover our lowliness, it’s for us to discover the depth of our ability. It’s for us to uncover the innate preciousness and true greatness concealed within each of us.
Mistakes are not a bug, they are intentionally built into the system. So when we do deviate, when we do fail, there is no room for despair. It’s a reminder that G-d has something greater in mind for us.
Our deepest Divine service is to get up when we fall and learn from our mistakes. This is how we express the greatest of Divine perfection; the ability to make mistakes.

Kosher Pig?!


Kosher pig?! How could pigs become Kosher? Never. The rabbi has gone mad…?
Never, you say? Well, consider this: the Hebrew term for this unkosher omnivore is Chazer. This Hebrew name that it carries, says the Talmud, indicates that in the future, in the Messianic era, Hashem will yachzirena (return it) to the Jewish people and it will become Kosher.
How does that make sense? Well, I don’t know the literal explanation, or if it is even supposed to be taken literally, but here’s a nice insight that I will share with you:
Kosher animals must chew their cud and have split hooves. Chassidic teachings identify the kosher signs in animals as reflecting spiritual accomplishment and lack of kosher signs as spiritual deficiencies.
An animal that has both kosher signs reflects a person whose personal character is holy and refined - and whose actions and interactions with others reflect this internal refinement.
To clarify:
Has split hooves = many good deeds
Now, an animal that is lacking in one or the other sign reflects an individual who is lacking either in character refinement or is lacking in their interaction with others and good deeds. This means that the pig, an animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew its cud, reflects a person who has many good deeds but whose internal character is not so refined.
In the Messianic era, when the world will be cleansed of all negative elements and will be elevated to a higher state of purity, this character refinement deficiency will be rectified. But, missing good deeds cannot ever be added.
Therefore, our sages say, the pig will “return”; i.e. the person whose personal, internal, spiritual character is lacking will become refined. However if one’s personal spiritual character is well developed but the good deeds are lacking, this cannot be fixed or retrieved retroactively. In other words, as the sages said, a pig (or rather, a person whose spiritual state is reflected by the pig) will become purified.
And it’s not just a handy insight to a strange Talmudic statement, it’s relevant to each of us today too. People often tell me that they don’t feel “moved” to perform a particular mitzvah, they don’t feel inspired. This little Talmudic anecdote reminds us, missed action can never be replaced but positive action lacking sincere intention can always later be rectified.

One Second, It's Still Passover?


Everyone knows about the Passover Seder. In fact, it’s one of the most observed Jewish practices, both inside and outside Israel. We know what it’s all about, we’re commemorating the Exodus and along with it come all the familiar (and some unfamiliar) traditions.


But what is the purpose of the end of Passover? The first days are observed as work-restricted holidays as are the last; why not just end the holiday after the Seder?


The simple answer is because the event which Passover commemorates, namely the Exodus, wasn’t over until a full week later. Only after the miraculous splitting of the sea, when what was left of the mighty Egyptian army drowned in the Reed Sea, were the Jewish people truly freed from Egyptian persecution.


As you know, there is always more to the story. We get an inkling from the Haftorah (reading from the Prophets) of the last day of Passover. We read about the era of Moshiach, the promise of a future redemption.


The first days of Passover commemorate the Exodus, the last days of Passover look toward the Messianic redemption in the future. There are a number of differences between the two but let’s focus on one for now.


By all accounts, the Exodus from Egypt was G-d’s doing - in fact, the Jewish people were on an extremely low spiritual level. Their spiritual level was in many ways so similar to their Egyptian captors that the Midrash quotes the angels as having argued against their redemption, claiming that they didn’t deserve it.


The future Messianic redemption however, is dependent on our doing; it is based on our behavior and our choices. In fact, while we eagerly work toward and await the global redemption, we can incorporate a redemption mindset in our own life - even before the rest of the world is up to speed.


The Exodus from Egypt didn’t change the entire world, its effect was not permanent. While we were never exiled back to Egypt, over the years we have still been subjected to various forms of exile and slavery.


On an individual basis - we cannot be completely free when our freedom is provided by someone else - even by G-d. Ultimate and lasting freedom is internally achieved. It is only when redemption is made personal; personally developed and deeply internalized, that it has the ability to achieve permanent - and global - change.


For this reason - among others - we gather on the last day of Passover, in the last few hours of the holiday, and celebrate with the “Meal of Moshiach”. We don’t wait until redemption “happens” to us, we begin to incorporate the redemption mindset in our daily lives.


Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.