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.

How Do We Handle Tragedy?

Although I deeply enjoy the work I do, there is one thing that challenges me more than anything else: comforting people in times of tragedy. I’m human too (yes, believe it or not) and most of the time I don’t have words either. I don’t have wisdom to offer every time something terrible takes place and I certainly have no inkling as to why G-d chooses that such tragedies take place.
The horrific collapse of the condo building in Florida early yesterday morning leaves us questioning. Why? How? It’s unfair!
When tragedy strikes we have to reflect about how we can change for the better as a result of this event. How can we each add in positivity and light to make this world a better place?
Silence is an excellent immediate response to tragedy. But following the silence there must be action. Action that we can immediately implement.
Questions like “why did this happen?” or “how did this happen?” or “what caused it to happen?” or even “how can we prevent it in the future?” are mostly questions for law enforcement, politicians, health care professionals - or perhaps, G-d. But none of them are in my direct control.
While I may not have anything to say, I know that blame, bickering and hatred are not solutions. Regardless of how emotional one may get by events around us - or even those that happen to us directly - divisiveness has never healed anyone.
Emotion can be positive when it motivates us to do more than we may have otherwise. However, when that emotion is misdirected toward things over which we have no immediate direct control, we’re wasting a precious opportunity to better the world.
The only directly relevant question that I need to immediately ask - and answer - is, what can I do? I can add positivity in my personal life. I can be more cognizant of what is happening to those around me. I can stop and help when I see someone in need. I can volunteer to help those who are hurting.
There are so many things that we can immediately do, today, in the wake of tragedy. What will you do?

Is Judaism Rational?


Some like to think that Judaism is rational but I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not. In fact, trying to rationalize Judaism will lead to abandoning it altogether. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study - we have to understand all that we can. But we also need to acknowledge that there are somethings that we simply cannot.
Western society tends to looks down on doing things without logical basis, while at the same time hundreds of marketing firms exist solely to cause people to purchase, behave or believe by appealing to emotion. Most of us wouldn’t be able to articulate why a particular brand is significantly more valuable than its competitors - yet we’ll willingly spend extra money on that particular brand.
The fact is that a rational Judaism is a limited one - even if an individual is significantly knowledgeable and duly observant. At the end of the day, their observance is tied to their understanding - and that is limited by definition.
How can one connect with an infinite G-d through a limited prism? How can one fully integrate Judaism in their life if it is limited?
The supra rational nature of Judaism is highlighted in this week’s Torah portion, its very name is Chukat which means the statutes. These laws that are taught by G-d without any reason being provided. While literally speaking about the laws of the Red Heifer, the Torah implies that all the mitzvot - even those taught with a reason - are included under the umbrella of supra rational commandments.
All Mitzvot, even those that have an understandable and rational meaning, should be performed due to G-d’s command, not simply based on the logical understanding. This attitude provides a powerful inoculation against the possibility of abandoning the mitzvot based on one’s logical calculation.
Think about this: the worst tragedy in history was perpetrated by a modern, technologically advanced, scientifically steeped nation. How could this happen? Because their morals were man made and logical, not based on divine instruction.
Our Torah portion of Chukot has an additional connotation, that of engraving. The Hebrew word for engraving is also related to the name of our portion. It’s an apt connection; when one serves G-d in a supra rational manner, as implied by the first meaning of Chukot, the effect is that their relationship with G-d and their life as a Jew are not simply elements that have been added to their character, rather they are what defines their very being. It’s an expression of their essence, their true self.

Nuclear Soul


Moses is known as the faithful shepherd of the Jewish people. He redeemed us from Egypt, split the Reed Sea and gave us the Torah. He structured the foundation of Jewish practice and its Judicial systems, leading our ancestors to the border of the Promised Land.
Yet when the Torah highlights his life achievements after his passing, none of these significant accomplishments are listed. Instead, the Torah highlights when he shattered the tablets as the defining moment of his life and his greatest accomplishment.
Consider the context for a moment. The people had sinned within 40 days of receiving the Torah; they had fashioned and worshipped the Golden Calf. This was a blatant violation of the very first of the Ten Commandments they had only just received. And when Moses witnessed this calamity, he shattered the tablets.
How can this be viewed as something positive? How can this be construed as a highlight of Moses’ life? THIS is his defining moment?? THIS is how he should be remembered?? It seems more like an event that would better be swept under the rug!
In fact, that moment when Moses chose to smash the tablets rather than allow the people to be wiped out by G-d, is when he truly became the faithful shepherd of the Jewish people.
Moses highlighted the value of the Jewish people, greater even than their observance of the Torah. Precious beyond anything in existence is the Jewish soul. This is what Moses understood and communicated at that pivotal moment.
This idea is at the core of the Rebbe’s life and leadership. The Rebbe wouldn’t tolerate speaking ill of a fellow Jew and viewed every Jew from the perspective of their powerful soul.
In fact, the Rebbe is said to have compared the soul of a Jew to nuclear energy. What might seem like a miniscule particle can release the most immense energy.
This Sunday, Gimmel Tammuz/3rd Tammuz, marks 27 years since we were able to see the Rebbe.
It’s time to adopt this attitude in our daily interactions with fellow Jews and stop focusing on the superficial. It’s time we start viewing ourselves and each other from the perspective of our souls.
Imagine how much of a difference this would make?

Becoming an Influencer


Do you ever read an historical narrative and want to scream at the protagonists to warn them of the impending danger they’re stepping into? Or is it only me that has this weird sort of feeling?
Especially when they shoulda seen it coming.
I experience such a moment each year when studying the narrative of the spies recounted in this week’s Torah portion (Sh’lach). G-d Himself was seemingly reluctant to send the spies, telling Moses instead “You decide whether to send them.”
That should have been enough for Moses to realize it wouldn’t end well. Moses himself sensed there was trouble brewing, he even gave Joshua (one of the two spies who remained faithful) a special blessing to protect him from the negative influence of his companions.
So why in Heaven’s name did he go ahead and send them?? Because there was pressure from the people? Moses was used to standing up to pressure, he had never backed down under much greater pressure!! Yet suddenly here, against his better judgment, he capitulated.
Had Moses suddenly lost his mojo?
It’s too great a stretch to interpret this as an unfortunate mistake by the greatest Jewish leader of all time. In fact, if sending spies was the wrong decision, why in the world would Joshua himself make the same mistake some 40 years later when they were finally crossing the border into the land??
Obviously the decision was sound, the failure was in it’s execution.
There was a very important transition that needed to take place while the Jewish people were in the desert. They need to go from being a dependent people for whom everything was done on their behalf, to being independent. They needed to transform themselves from a nation of slaves into a nation of founders and builders; entrepreneurs and leaders.
They had to transition from being takers to being givers. From being influenced to being influencers.
In fact, that’s what the entire story of the Exodus and the journey to the Land of Israel is all about. It’s about taking responsibility. And yes, sometimes that means mistakes will be made.
Moses knew the risks involved but didn’t intervene with the people’s request because he knew this was part of their necessary growth.
Just like our ancestors inheriting the land, our Jewishness and our connection to G-d is not dependent on anyone else aside from each of us. It’s not about the rabbi or the synagogue, it’s about me and G-d.
It’s about me making Jewish choices despite what others may or may not do. It’s about doing what’s right, whether or not it’s popular.


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