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Rabbi Yisroel's Blog

Aaron's Yahrzeit

Did you know there  is only one Yahrzeit date specifically mentioned in the Torah?  We know the dates of many others from oral tradition, but there's only one Yahrzeit date recorded in the Chumash. 

That Yahrzeit is today (July 29, 2022)! Today, on the 1st of Av, we remember Aharon, the brother of Moshe.

Incredibly,  it is also in this week's Parsha, Masei, that records the date of this  Yahrzeit! 

On the Yarzeit of a loved one, we take time to learn from their life and perpetuate their ways. With that in mind, today is the perfect day for the Aharon Challenge 

When our Sages tell us to be like Aharon, they use the words OHEV SHALOM and RODEF SHALOM, love peace and pursue peace. 

Most people will say they love peace. (I mean, who actually enjoys living with ugly arguments?)  But yet, we also know all too well expressions like:

"Well, if you knew what X said to me, you'd understand why I no longer speak to her." 

"I should call him? He should be the one reaching out to me first to apologize..." 

In using the word "pursue," our Sages are highlighting something deep.

If you truly love something, you’ll do everything you can to pursue it, not wait for the other person to come to you. That means loving shalom more than you love being right, and more than you want the other person to be wrong. You'll be willing to give up a lot for that Shalom -- whether that be a few dollars or your pride... 

It’s not a game in which there’s only one winner.  Your letting go  (in Hebrew, what is called being mevater) is the ultimate win in the game of life.

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Aharon's Yarzeit is a very timely for this season.

The 1st of Av, also begins the 9 days of mourning leading up to Tisha B'av, the saddest day on the Jewish Calendar.

Our Sages explain that the destruction of Jerusalem was due to "unwarranted hatred." There was a lack of concern, love, and respect for each other. The Jewish people, even during the siege of Jerusalem, remained fractionalized and divided. One would have thought that this crisis would have brought them together. But they lacked this greatness taught by Aharon, and succumbed to senseless fighting, often over petty issues.

And so, today, the first of Av, is the perfect time for the "Aharon Challenge," reversing this mistake by going to the other extreme. 

It's when we are inspired to go above and beyond in the department of love and unity to one another even when there is no logical reason to do so.

Is there someone with whom you previously had an argument? Reach out with warmth to them today, even if you feel it should be the other person who should be apologizing.

Is there a someone with whom a cold silence has developed over time? Call them today with a warm Shabbat Shalom.

Is there someone in the Jewish community with very, very different views from yourself?  Find a way to connect and spend meaningful time together in the coming week.

And if you're asked what prompted the call...you can simply say Aharon!

 

Infinite Scrolling

It was 14 years ago that a Jewish technology engineer designed a new app feature. 

Back then (most of our readers probably remember!) all parts of the internet were divided into pages, and when you got to the bottom of one page, you had to decide to click a button to get to the next page.

Aza Raskin was always looking for ways to make things faster and more efficient. And so, he developed "infinite scrolling." It's a feature used throughout social media and other sites.  When you get to the bottom of a post or article, it will automatically load another chunk for you to flick through. And then again... You can never exhaust it. It will scroll infinitely.

He believed he was making life easier for everyone. He had been taught that increased speed and efficiency of access were always advances. 

Fast forward to today. Aza Raskin feels guilt for his creation he now apologizes for.  He realized that it was people, not productivity, that was changing as a result of this new feature.  At a conservative estimate, infinite scroll makes you spend 50 percent more of your time on sites like Twitter. Aza went as far as making a calculation that  every day the combined total of 200,000 human lifetimes is now spent scrolling through a screen!

I found it fascinating that a small change would make such a difference.  But as I thought about it more, it made sense.  Back when you had to click a button to get to the next page, you were given an active choice. It gave you a moment to pause and ask: Do I want to carry on looking at this? Today, however, you finish that video on Facebook  and the next one loads immediately....

After reading the article, I immediately deleted social media apps from my phone.

And it got me thinking.  How would Judaism look at the phenomena of "infinite scrolling"?

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There is a short verse in our Parsha that recently caught my attention.  As the Torah discusses the census of the Jewish People, it recounts the tragic rebellion, and subsequent death of Korach and his gang. It then tells us:

“The Sons of Korach did not Die.”

The Talmud fills us in with the details of this dramatic story. Korach's sons had originally joined their father's plot.  But then started to realize their Dad had it all wrong. As Korach’s sons were free-falling into the pit in the ground, they had deep feelings of regret and Teshuva. Their repentance was so sincere that G-d made a ledge miraculously jut out of the side of the chasm, which Korah’s sons safely landed on. They were spared.

”The sons of Korach did not die.” They went on to live spiritually rich lives, even authoring chapters of Psalms which we recite up until today.

I’ve always found the story powerful.  It reminds us life is series of individual choices.  At any point in time, a person can say “enough is enough” – I am ready to make changes in my life. 

Next time you find yourself sliding down a spiritual cliff, think about the sons of Korach.  Next time you feel stuck going in a certain direction, remember there is always a ledge ready to catch us.  Next time you feel it's too late to start doing a certain Mitzvah at this stage of your life, remember there is no infinite scrolling in life. We are always free to change. 

And when we have that moment of Teshuva, Hashem responds in kind. He will create that little ledge --- the opportunities, mentors, and resources to climb out of our hole and achieve great spiritual heights...

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One final thought on this "ledge" in our life:

A committed Jewish life is the ultimate protection in a society where it's so easy to fall prey to mindless interaction with technology.   To be honest, everyone can fall prey to this addiction. (I know this all too well!) But in a Torah lifestyle there is always something to "wake you up" and offer you that ledge to stop the spiral downwards. 

Mitzvot brings mindfulness and intentionality in all that we do.  This is needed more than ever today. Blessings to be said before we eat.  Lashon Hara considerations to think about before we talk or email.  Tzedaka to give before we spend money on a non-essentials. Regular  Torah study sessions to keep out the negativity and fill out mind with holiness.

And of course, the ultimate refresh each week- Shabbat! 

Perhaps its time for Aza Raskin to come up with a good marketing campaign promoting Shabbat observance!

When Michael Jordan Called a Jewish Boy at Home (Parsha Chukat)

A mentor of mine, Rabbi Shais Taub, grew up in Chicago. Back then, the Bulls practiced in a simple facility called the Multiplex and he and his friends would gather around the building after school watching the basketball players come and go. 

Once, after a practice in the mid 80’s, the boys followed Michael Jordan as he was leaving the building.  Twelve year old Shais was the last in line. By the time he came to the front, Jordan was already entering his Corvette.  He tried a last attempt to get his attention and signature, sticking his hands into the car, only to hear the famous athlete scream at him “Get your hands away from the car…or they're going to get slammed by the door!”

He was more than humiliated. Everyone else got an autograph and he got yelled at (talk about a flagrant foul!).  He came home rejected and cried to his father how much he hated the local star.

Rabbi Taub’s father went into action. He found out Jordan's home address and sent him a handwritten letter.  He explained how he knew Jordan was a better person than what transpired and he probably didn't realize how much he hurt a young boy's feeling. He finished by saying that he knows that he is a respected athlete and is sure he can find a way to earn back the love of a young fan.

Less than a week later, the phone rang and little Shais was told he had a phone call.  The unmistakable voice of Michael Jordan was on the line.  He asked the boy if he still considered himself a fan of his and invited him to go down courtside next time he was at a game. Indeed, a short time later, he met Jordan - this time with a smile, picture, and signature.

As Rabbi Taub got older, he realized this story was less about a great basketball player...and really about a great Dad. He was in awe of the way his Dad felt his hurt and went above and beyond to make him feel better.   How in the world did he find a way to bring together a pained child and a world-famous athlete not exactly known for his sensitivity? That took love, sincerity, risk, and a great understanding of human nature (His Dad after all is a psychologist!)

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Every year during this Parsha, I think of Aharon, the brother of Moshe.   The Torah goes out of its way to highlight that he was universally mourned after his passing in this week's Torah portion.

Aharon was beloved by all. Because he made all capable of loving.  Indeed, he was known as the ultimate peacemaker.

There wasn't a family-fight or business-disagreement that he couldn't resolve.  He was the ultimate mediator known for saving marriages and repairing friendships. 

How?   Not only through clever communication or meditation tricks.  Through his love, humility, and connecting to everyone with compassion.

Aharon's friendly shalom and warm gaze were so impactful that the person was lifted beyond petty disagreements and fights.  

One famous Midrash puts it this way:

"Then two people were fighting with one another, Aaron would go and sit next to one of them and say: My son, look at the anguish your friend is going through! His heart is ripped apart..He is saying, How can I face my old friend?

Then Aaron would go to the other person in the fight and say: My son, look at the anguish your friend is going through...Aaron would sit with him until his rage subsided. When the two people saw each other, they would embrace...

Some might say Aharon was compromising on truth for the sake of peace. But it runs deeper than that.  He brought out the true core of others. He lived higher and thus caused others to live higher. An encounter with him brought out your "Neshama," and it's no wonder that the "better you" emerged.

The world desperately needs more of this "Aharon" peace. 

Peace does not mean you will agree on issues. It means going beyond any particular issues.  Elevating a conversation to that place that we do agree.

Peace does not mean you do not see something wrong. It means having the "soul vision" to see past the negativity of another and into their Divine Soul.

And when we can do that, just like Aharon, the other often responds in kind...

What Tom Brady Can Teach Us

While I'm not a big football fan, come January, and I can get shlepped into the excitement.  I'm fascinated by the talent, the small details that can determine the entire season, and the Superbowl hype.

But I also try looking out for spiritual lessons in sports. This year, the "light bulb" went off as I read an article about Tom Brady, the quarterback of the Patriots. Love him or hate him, it's agreed that he is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.   Perhaps most remarkable is his ability to keep playing on an extraordinary level well past the age most quarterbacks begin to decline.

While there is certainly some "Mazel" in athletes staying healthy, the article highlighted what he does to stay at the top of the game.  As I read about his intense schedule, diet, and mindset, I could not help but imagine living life as focused on our goals, applying these same principles to something far more important - our spiritual life.

Here are a few clips from the article - with a spiritual parallel:

Adapting to Change

"Several years ago, Brady wanted to guard against the diminishing arm strength that dooms most quarterbacks as they age, so he devised a plan with his trainer to rebuild his motion and emphasize using more of his torso to drive the ball down the field. It revitalized his ability to throw deep."

Is our Jewish journey stagnant? Do we adapt to new challenges or opportunities?  When we notice our prayers become too robotic, do we strategize how to make davening more meaningful? If a pocket of time opens up, do we fill it with a new Mitzvah or study?   When we find our relationships weakening, do we take note and figure out what character traits need fine-tuning? Do we have a "spiritual trainer" we feel comfortable talking to?

We are what we eat

"Brady keeps to an incredibly strict diet that includes a lot of vegetables and lean meats. If it's not organic, I don't use it. And whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, millet, beans.... No white sugar. No white flour.  I use Himalayan pink salt as the sodium. I never use iodized salt. No coffee. No caffeine. No fungus. No dairy."

Observing Kosher. Reciting blessings before and after we eat. Family Shabbat meals. Prohibitions against eating chametz on Passover. Eating healthfully. Eating for the right reasons.

So many Mitzvos in Torah relate to mindful eating. It's a way to bring sanctity to what is typically such a mundane area of our life.  And with all of these mitzvot, the details really matter. Not only to the health of our body, but also for our soul.

Know your Opponent

"Tom Brady helped the New England Patriots beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday to advance to his seventh Super Bowl, but he spent no time reveling in the glory.  In fact, just hours after winning the AFC, Brady was right back to work, up until 1:30 a.m. studying the Falcons' roster in preparation for the Super Bowl.  On other occasions, security guards would be called in the middle of the night as Brady was trying to get into the building to watch film."

Torah tells us we have two forces inside of us: Our G-dly soul, and its opponent, our animal soul.  Life is the tale of 2 Souls.  There are times we operate from best selves and the moments we fall prey to our flaws and weak spots. 

How well do we really know this opponent? Do we understand ourselves well? Know how to respond when we feel anger or jealous? Recognize the tools that lift us out from sadness? Have the clarity to know which situation to avoid?

The Chabad Classic, the Tanya, is all about understanding the struggle within and using that knowledge to win the game of life.

Never Stop Growing!

We don’t train with the idea he is already the starting quarterback,” Guerrero said. “Every year, he’s working to be the starting quarterback, and he’s got to work hard to do that. He always talks about it. Every year there is going to be somebody there that is going to outwork me if I don’t continue to work hard. So in his mind, he has to keep working hard in order to continue to perform at the level he has or to improve.”

A famous Chassidic quote:

In material matters, a person who is content with his lot is an individual of the highest quality. In spiritual matters, however, to be satisfied with one’s lot is the worst deficiency, and makes one regress and fall, G‑d forbid.

Just like someone trying to swim against the tide, if one is not moving forward they are probably going backwards.  The determination to never feel "you have arrived" but rather always keep growing in Mitzvot is central to the life of a Jew.

The Two Most Dramatic Words in the Torah

It is perhaps the most climactic line in the entire Torah.  “Ani Yosef! I Am Jospeh”  It is these words that end the drama of the longest uninterrupted story of the Torah.

Until that point, his 11 brothers were filled with so much confusion. Why was the Egyptian leader terrorizing them? How did the cup end up in Benjamin’s sack? Were they being punished for their sin of selling Joseph? Was Joseph still alive? Where was he?  How could peace and tranquility ever return to their family?

Endless questions. Complete darkness. There seemed no way forward.

But with these two words, all of those questions were instantly answered.  A powerful beam of light lit up the entire room, clarifying what they had thought to be unanswerable.

(Sure there were still some loose ends to finish up:  Joseph incredibly showing no resentment. The brothers going back to Israel to bring up their father. The reunion of Joseph and his father. Joseph stressing that he did forgive them.  But those things quickly fell into place after the others three words ended the decades of confusion.)

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Jewish history is replete with so many unanswered questions.  From the national tragedies that have befallen our people over the millennia to the tremendous suffering of those dealing with illnesses today, there is so, so much suffering in the world, so much we do not understand.   As Jews, we have complete faith in G-d and recognize the limits of our finite mind, while, at the same time, question and cry out to G-d about the many things we do not understand.

Could a day ever come when this darkness will end? Is it really possible that we one day understand that which seems to have no answer?

Torah says YES!  One of the principles of our faith is the belief in Moshiach, a time when “tears will turn into joy” and light will finally put an end to darkness. Somehow, in ways we cannot possibly fathom today, the many puzzle pieces of existence will suddenly come together and we will get the answers to so many of life’s questions, just like that moment we read about this week  “I am Joseph.”

So we march forward with faith. Doing all we can to turn on little lights all around us until the day comes when G-d turns on the main switch ushering in the era of Moshiach.

May that day come very speedily…

The Missing Keys & Chesed of Netzach

 The phone rang. The Caller-ID said it was Staples. Then they called again. Then a third  time. I finally picked up. 

It was an employee letting me know that someone had found our keyring. We had been looking for those keys all over the house and had no idea where they were.

 How did the store get my phone number? A women found our keys in a parking lot.  Looking for a way to identify the owner, she noticed the mini staples award card on the key ring, brought the keys to the nearest staples, found my account on file, had them call me, and passed on her contact information. 

Staples gave me the number to the kind woman but by then she was already on the way back home to her home in Apex. She immediately turned around to return the keys despite my insistence of my going out to her house.  It also became clear to me how far out of her way she had gone to track me down and return the keys.

I shared the story with my Hebrew School class this week.  What the kids were quick to point out was not just her doing the Mitzvah of returning the lost object itself but rather the effort and time that went into to it.

The simple story made for a great teaching moment.   Acts of kindness, calledChesed, is something we all do. But the question is whether such deeds are done out of a sense of duty/guilt or whether we commit ourselves fully to those Mitzvot.

A  good litmus test is observing how we react when attempts to do “kindness” hit an obstacle. Does the enthusiasm fizzle or does the new challenge just give us greater determination to complete the Mitzvah?

We all know the feelings:

  • The times we muster enough energy to make that phone call to the other person, but deep down hope we get the answering machine...
  • The occasions we are willing to do the bare minimum of  a good deed but then stop when the first problem that comes up (telling ourselves “But at least I tried...”)

It is times like these that need to discover the trait that is called NETZACH in Kabbalistic texts. Netzach means Endurance. Perseverance. The ability to dedicate ourselves to a task and see it through no matter what.

Oh…and the date on the calendar my keys were found? Last Sunday, 7th day of Iyar, the 22nd day of the counting of the Omer, the day of the Omer we work on the trait of  “Chesed of Netzach!”  

You can download an app for the counting of the omer and the trait to work on each day at this link .  You might just found yourself seeing occurrences through the lens of that day's trait... :)

Last Day of Pesach - Hearing the Roar of the Helicopters

My thanks to Rabbi Hirshky Minkowicz for the Helocopter metaphor 

You may have heard the story in the news a few weeks ago. Two tenth grade girls from a Chabad school in Miami went missing while on a school trip.

They were on a Shabbat weekend retreat in Orlando, and they had gone for a leisure walk in the afternoon and never returned. 

It was 18 hours later when they were finally were spotted by helicopter, stuck knee deep in the swamps near the hotel. After much effort, guided by communication from the helicopters, a ground crew was able to reach them and get them out to safety. 

What started off for them as a regular normal day, eventually ended with a dreadful and nightmarish experience, with the two of them lost in the forest, spending the night in the Florida marsh, at times stuck deep in the swamps, murky waters known to be teeming with gators.

As they made their way through the bushes and thorns, waving frantically every time the helicopters flew by above, their ordeal included moments chin deep in the water, followed by climbing trees to find high ground, only to have the trees break and put them back in the swamps again. Kind of like the way some people feel about their challenges in life.

They knew that in order to survive they needed to do two things; stay awake and never lose hope.

Staying awake was the hard part, yet for the hope they had some help.

Although they know that their situation was bleak, there was a reason they never lost hope. It was the helicopters.

After their ordeal ended, they told their friends that what had given them the hope and determination to survive the experience, was the sound of the helicopters.

Hearing the choppers flying above gave them a sense that they would surely be found before it was too late. If the helicopters were up above, they knew that help would eventually arrive below. Their job was to continue waving and signaling until help showed up.

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While few of us (thank G-d!) go through an ordeal like that, we all have times in life we’re (figuratively) stuck in a swamp amongst the thorns and alligators.  Whether it is a painful personal issue we are dealing with or simply thinking about the state of the world, it can be challenging to keep up the hope and optimism that is critical to life as a Jew…

How do we do it? And how have Jews done it for thousands of years?

The answer is helicopters.

While there may be chaos down below, Jews have always felt the sound ofhelicopters above.  Deep faith in G-d. Emuna that we are being watched and cared for by our Father in Heaven. Knowledge that there is meaning in our struggles. And faith in the promise one day the darkness and confusion will end below and the entire world will be filled with G-dly clarity and goodness.  Through the worst of times, in our prayers and dreams we have heard these sounds in our Torah and waved and signaled our belief in the coming of Moshiach. We know that day is coming…

But there is one day a year when those helicopter sounds are stronger than ever. The last day of Passover, this Shabbos.  While the beginning of Pesach marks our redemption from Egypt, the theme of the end of the holiday is the ultimate redemption of the entire world.  Our Rebbes taught the last day of Pesach is a day saturated with the spiritual energy of Moshiach, one so real that it has become the tradition to eat a final meal in the closing minutes of the holiday in which we once again eat Matzah and drink four cups of wine. The reason for this custom is in order to take our belief in Moshiach, something that can often be abstract, and turn into a concrete idea & physical meal.  More on this beautiful tradition here.

May this Passover be the day when those sounds above finally become our reality below.

Sushi BEFORE Pesach

I flew into NY today and 9 hours later am already returning.  The purpose of the short trip?

1) Bringing back lots of Passover Supplies

2) Some time dedicated to spiritual preparation before the upcoming holiday

3) Prayer and Reflection at the Rebbe’s Resting Place, Yhe Ohel, on the date of his birthday.

4) Sushi. That’s right. With the hectic Passover preparations going on, I really wanted to surprise Chana with some easy-to-eat kosher food that I know she enjoys.

Well, the first 3 things went pretty much as planned. It took a bit longer to get around the city than I had anticipated and while I wish I had a longer time at the Ohel, I was grateful have the opportunity to be there, albeit for a short amount of time.

I found myself rushing to get back to LGA. And then I remembered...The Sushi. 

I made a dash for a Large Kosher Market in Queens. As we pulled up, I couldn’t believe my eyes. After living in Cary for 6 years, I must have forgotten what a “peak-time” Passover shopping looked like in NY.

The Parking Lot reminded me of the State Fair. Inside it was so crowded there was literally no room to push a cart. I quickly found the sushi in the “non Passover Section” and ran to the checkout. But each of the ten or so counters had huge lines with carts literally packed with grocery items...I stood out with with my 3 little packages of Sushi.

To my relief, there was an express lane. But then I noticed about 20 people in front of me. What to do? Return the sushi and hurry on to LGA? Or stay but risk arriving to the airport late.

Well, I stayed. And it It took a long time. I was nervous and constantly going back and forth between gazing at the line ahead and checking my phone hoping for a plane delay. Finally, I made it out with that Sushi.

Thank G-d, there was no traffic and I just made my flight. But as I settled into the seat on the plane, I began to ask myself..."Why did I cut it so close?" I mean I had accomplished the purpose of the trip without this food. I could certainly explain to Chana how I wanted to get her something but there was simply no time. Was it really worth risking my flight over?

All of a sudden the perspective came to me from something I had learned about the MAH NISHTANA…

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Tonight, millions of children around the world will ask the Four Questions.  What you may not have known is that the order of the Four Questions in the Chabad Haggadah—is a bit different than what most people are used to.

1. Why do we dip the foods? 2. Why eat matzah? 3. Why eat bitter herbs? 4. Why do we recline? Many early additions of the haggadah  had this order but it is different from the regular tradition in which we first ask about the Matzah.

Most begin with Matzah as it is the the most important issue out of the 4 questions. Then comes Maror. Dipping is only a custom and hence #3. (And Reclining is #4 as it was added only later in history after reclining while eating ceased to be in vogue)

So why do some ask about the dipping first? Shouldn’t we begin with the essentials?

To understand this we need to take a step back and understand why the Jewish legal structure is so complicated.  Some mitzvot are from the Torah, others are “only” rabbinic in nature, and then there are the myriads of minhagim, what we usually call customs. I mean, If G‑d wanted us to do all of these things, why not just directly communicate them all?

Here’s one way of looking at it:

We can easily view a mitzvah in the Torah as nothing more than a commandment that we are obliged to obey, failing to realize that a mitzvah is not only a decree—but aconnection. It is our way of creating a relationship with G‑d.

The Rebbe once illustrated this idea using a parable of a parent and a child. There are times when a mother or father will give their child direct and precise instructions. For instance, “Do well in school!” or “Be careful when crossing the road!”

On other occasions, It will only be a hint to their child. Perhaps saying, “We have a lot of dirty dishes tonight.” The child is meant to take the hint and wash the dishes.

Finally, there are those times when the parent will remain totally silent. Not even a clue is offered to the child. For example, no mother or father will mention to his child that he has an upcoming birthday in the hope that the child will be thoughtful enough to buy him a present. Such a gesture must come from the child on his own initiative.

Similarly, there are certain commandments that G‑d clearly spelled out in the Torah.

Others were only hinted to us—perhaps through an extra letter or superfluous verse in the Torah.

Finally, there are those things that G‑d didn’t mention to us at all. Yet, as His children, we know this is what our Father wants.

Which  of the above-mentioned “duties” takes precedence?

Disobeying an express order is certainly worse that merely failing to catch a hint. And most certainly, a child won’t receive a punishment for for forgetting a mom’s birthday.

And as such, if you are focused on the “commandment” aspect of the mitzvot, then those that are written into the Torah take precedence.

But if we focus on the “relationship” aspect, it is clear that the custom expresses the deepest bond and richest love between father and child. 

It goes one step further. When we cherish the “custom”, sensing how it highlights the personal relationship, that itself helps ensure we will always observe the more important commandments. But once we lose sight of “the relationship component” and begin seeing Judaism as only a set of rules even the more serious commandments can sadly begin to grow weaker…  

As such, in Chabad Tradition, we begin the Four Questions with asking about the dipping. It is only a minhag/custom but we deeply cherish these and recognize how they help support the rest of the Torah.

Connecting to this idea, perhaps that is why I cared so much about that Sushi. Certainly, the other 3 issues were the more important components to the trip. Nonetheless, there was something about returning with that surprise for Chana that was special, even to the point of running very late for a flight...

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With all this thought about Sushi, a related-issue suddenly came to mind.

Ashkenazi Jews have traditionally not eaten corn, rice, or beans on Passover.  These foods are not Biblically considered Chametz. They are not even prohibited by the Rabbis in Talmudic times.  It was only later on when the medieval Jewish sages placed a ban on eating these legumes (called kitniyot) on Passover. And since the 1200's,Ashenkazi Jews have not eaten rice and corn on Passover.

This past week I was asked for my thoughts on whether it is still important to keep this tradition.

Isn’t it only a more recent custom? Isn’t it true that historically it was only accepted by Askenazim and not Sefardim? Doesn’t observing this tradition limit the holiday menu and detract from the joy of the holiday? Doesn’t the original reason for the decree no longer apply?

The answer (for Ashkenazi Jews) is that we absolutely still keep this custom. These foods may not be actual Chametz but avoiding these items on Passover is a time-honored custom that is meant to be not only observed but cherished.  Customs like this become part and parcel of our eternal Torah.  And viewing the custom as a “rule” or “restrictions” that get in the way of the joy of the holiday sadly misses out on what a Jewish tradition is essentially about – ways in which the Jewish people have voluntary enriched our festivals and observances. It is a practice to be loved as it highlights our personal relationship with G-d.

So in a funny way,. the reason for my bringing back Sushi this week and our not eating Sushi next week are actually one in the same…

Four Cups of Milk

A local Jew came to Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik with a strange question. "Is it permissible to use four cups of milk at the seder instead of four cups of wine?"

Understanding that this was an issue of finances (not health or any other reason), the Rabbi, without even responding, reached into his pocket and told the person "Take these twenty rubles and purchase wine."

After the Jew had left, a student asked the Rabbi, "Why did you have to give him twenty-five rubles? Five would be more than enough to purchase the required amount of wine."

Rabbi Soloveichik answered, "If he intended to use milk at the Seder, that means he also doesn't have money for meat [For Jewish law forbids having milk and meat at the same meal], and he probably also doesn't have money for the other items served at the Seder. I wanted to give him enough so that he could have a complete Seder."

I’ve always loved this story. It highlights what it means to really listen. To respond to only a particular question but to understand where a question is coming from. To truly care. And that care for others needs to be at the center of Pesach.

In just one week we will be sitting down at the seder. The Magid portion of the seder in which we tell over the story of the Exodus begins with the section of “Hei Lachma Anya” in which we extend an open invitation for anyone to join our seder Table.  It's am unusual introduction, especially as such invitations should take place long before the seder begins.

One moving explanation is that at this point in the Haggada we are giving a definition of freedom -- the ability to help others.  (A slave just doesn’t have those same opportunities to give…)  As we open the seder by contrasting slavery and freedom, we immediately note that in our own lives we leave our “spiritual Egypt” when we are able to transcend the occupation with oneself and begin to truly notice those around us that may need help.

As we prepare for the holiday this week, I suggest spending a few quiet moments thinking about who may need assistance this Passover.  Is there someone that may not have a seder to attend that you can invite or refer to our community Seder? An individual who needs some financial help before the holiday? Perhaps someone that needs a ride or some assistance around the house? Maybe just a warm call with wishes for a Happy Pesach?

And if you know someone that can use our assistance, please do not hesitate giving Chana or me a call. There is no better way to prepare for Passover…

Opening Day

Locally, the Sports News may have been dominated by College Basketball talk, but many fans around the country celebrated something else big in American tradition this week: Opening Day in Baseball.  

While every sport has its "first game of the season" there's something about baseball's opening day. Perhaps it’s the association with fresh cut grass and the sunshine of spring. Maybe it’s due to the country’s long history with baseball.  (Or maybe, it's just the way I grew up!) Whatever the case, opening day is big enough that there’s a movement out there to officially declare the day a national holiday.

One thing special about the "opening day" of a 162 game season is that the past is history. The disappointment of the previous season is forgotten.   Every team is at exactly the same place.  Everyone thinks this might just be their year.  In June, it might be a different story, but for now, each team has real hope and optimism.

 -- 

As Jews, we have many opportunities to experience this feeling. One is each morning.  In fact, one of the reasons G-d created us in a way that requires us to sleep (just imagine how much we could get done without needing to sleep!) is to allow us that “fresh start” every morning.  Without sleep life would be ever-continuous and we’d never have the ability to start anew and put yesterday behind us.  A new morning allows us to declare, “Today will be different.” 

And in a greater sense, Shabbos is a reset button for the disappointments of the previous week.  As Shabbos concludes and we wish each other “Shavua Tov,” we leave the beautiful oasis of Shabbos and begin the work week anew.

And then, we have the renewal new month. It’s not by coincidence that the word in Hebrew for month, “Chodesh,” literally means “new.” With the new moon comes new hope and opportunity. 

But this Shabbos we experience this renewal in a deeper manner.  Called in the Torah “the first month of the year,” the month of Nissan is when our people became a free people. It is when we were able to rid ourselves of the negativity of our past and leave Egypt behind.  Today too, Nissan is called “the month of redemption,” a time we are given the ability to transcend our natural limitations of the past and “pass over” the factors that so often restrict our growth. Passover may begin in two weeks, but the opening day of Nissan is this Shabbos.

Happy and Sad at the Same Time

Perhaps you know the feeling. You’re in a sad mood. I mean, a truly sad mood with a very good reason to be down.  But then suddenly you hear good news about something else, Or perhaps you’re then asked to participate in another person’s joyous occasion.  How should you respond? Every feel it wouldn’t be honest to that other feeling to suddenly feel happy? Perhaps even a little guilty or hypocritical?

The Torah portion sheds light on this dilemma.  The Parsha opens up at a time of extreme happiness. The Tabernacle is inaugurated.   For the first time after their sin of the Golden Calf, they finally feel the Divine Presence dwelling in their midst. All seems to be going well. But then, in the height of their joy, tragedy strikes. The two sons of Aharon suddenly pass way. Mourning begins. And yet, the festivities also continue.  One of the offerings is eaten in celebration and a second is burned in grief.

The Torah’s message?   Opposing feelings can exist at the very same time. Or in the words of the Zohar, “Weeping is lodged in one side of my heart, and joy is lodged in the other.”

It’s a simple, yet profound idea.  We are complex people. Unlike a child whose emotions are straightforward (watch a toddler get upset!), adults are able to have conflicting feelings at the same time. As such, it is not being dishonest to embrace happiness at the time of joy, or vice versa.  There is room for both in our heart.  

The following reflection was penned by Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz, the Chabad Rabbi in North Fulton Georgia, less than a year after he tragically lost his wife Rashi at age 37.  While we pray to never experience anything remotely similar to this, this powerful message can be applied to many situations:

It was kind of a strange feeling being at the wedding of Rashi’s brother this past Sunday.

The family deserved a Simcha (joyous occasion) and thank G-d they had one. A time to celebrate and be happy. There was definitely an undercurrent of mixed emotions running through everyone’s heart, but the joy superseded all and the family danced and enjoyed.

But I was having a hard time getting into it. My heart was full of happiness for my brother-in-law and his bride, but my heart was also full of other emotions as well.

Ultimately I knew that I wanted to dance, but I felt more comfortable standing on the sidelines and observing.

Then it happened. The Chasidic Arm Schlep!

I felt a strong New York tug on my arm, turned around to see a family member pulling me, and before I knew it I was right there where I belonged, but couldn’t get myself to go, at the center of the dance floor.

A few minutes later the bride's father ‘pulled’ the same trick on me and there I was again.

I realized two things that night: Firstly that it is ok to have mixed emotions, we don’t need to have it all figured out. It is even ok to sit on the sidelines at times. But when there is a wedding, you have to dance at least part of the time. There are times when you can’t bring yourself to do it, and what you really need is a little of an arm schlep. It’s Ok!  Allow your arm to schlepped when it’s for a happy thing.

And I also learned that if you ever have the opportunity to be the "arm schlepper," go ahead and schlep! You will be doing a Mitzvah and bringing people the goodness they need

Why They'd Build a Golden Calf

 

We give the builders of the golden calf a bad rap, and deservedly so. In the Portion this week we read of a people who saw G-d directly, heard the Ten Commandments, and yet betrayed him 40 days later. How could they? If we had seen the revelations at Sinai, there is no way we would have sunk so low!

Or would we?

Let's take a step back,  These people had a concrete relationship with G-d. To them, G-d was not an idea, He was real! G-d protected them for their enemies, delivered them from slavery, sustained them in the dessert, and communicated His truth to them at Sinai.

And who helped make G-d real for them? Moses. And suddenly, Moses went missing. True, it had been merely hours since the deadline he gave when he was to return from the Mountain (according to their calculation) but when something precious goes missing, you panic before long.

And here one positive thing to learn from the people who built the golden calf:

We need to learn about G-d and know Him in a real way. We need to think about G-d and learn to see Him in everything. We need to pray to G-d and feel him listening. We need to trust in G-d as we would trust a parent who provides for us. We need to have a direct relationship in G-d that is not dependent on the inspiration of anyone else.

And yes, we should be bothered during those times this relationship feels weaker. We should feel what our ancestors felt when they were driven to build a golden calf - but of course we should never build it. Instead, we should learn how to make G-d real the way that He tells us to in our Torah…

In G-d We Trust

In G-d we trust.

It’s a line easy to take for granted. Perhaps you’ve never given it much thought. But to the Rebbe, the fact that our currency displays this phrase, and that this was adopted as the national motto, are things of of great importance. He saw this theme as the foundation of America and the source for so many of her blessings.

What is trust? How is it different that regular belief?

I remember the time I first heard of a “trust fall”. (A trust fall is a trust-building game conducted as a group exercise in which a person deliberately allows themself to fall backwards, relying on the other members of the group to catch the person) It was in summer camp and our bunk was spending the afternoon doing a ropes course. While we had all taken part in each of the other activities on the ropes course, we were all afraid to do the trust fall. One by one, all the campers in the bunk stood up...only to back down when standing on the high platform.

Yes, we were good friends. Yes, we knew the rest of the bunk was down below waiting. Yes, we knew that the others were quite capable at “catching us.” But no, we were not ready to rely on that…

In this talk, the Rebbe explains a similar idea regarding our relationship with G-d. “Believing” in G-d is one thing, trusting is something else. Trusting means a recognition of a G-d that not only created the world but continues to direct it at any moment. Trusting means a relationship with G-d that affects our behavior down to the smallest detail. Trusting means internalizing our belief to the extent that it is part and parcel of who we are. Trusting is when "what G-d wants" becomes our own reality and the Torah is where we turn for direction when facing a question on how to proceed. Developing this level of trust is a life's journey.

Something to think about next time we pull out that dollar bill and see those words…

Holiday versus Vacation

While living in England and then Australia some years ago, it took some time to get used to the words now meaning different things. “French fries” became “chips” and a “sweater” became a “jumper.” But my favorite was one not commonly pointed out. What we call a “vacation” here in the USA is actually called a “holiday” in many other countries around the world.

While the words are used interchangeably, I realized that a closer look at the etymology of each reveals how different the words truly are.

The roots of the word “vacation” are from the Middle English vacacioun, and from Latin vactivactin – meaning freedom from occupation. The word “vacation” also relates to vactus, meaning to be empty or at leisure, escaping life’s responsibilities.

In other words, a vacation is when one gets away from reality, cuts off connection to the hectic work-week, and spends time devoid of any responsibility, duties, or obligations. While that can be relaxing, we also know how this can often make one feel tiresome and empty…

By contrast, “holiday” means making each day holy. A break from work allows us to escape from the burdens of the mundane life and focus on those more important and often overlooked aspects of life. Quality time spent with the family, an extra Torah session, or even an unrushed prayer in the morning. A little relaxation and recreation puts us in a calmer, better mood, allowing us to reflect on our divine mission and enhanced meaning for our lives. Simply put, a holiday allows us to touch base with our soul and give it the attention it deserves.

And let’s not forget the kids. The Rebbe once explained that is specifically at summer camps when the heart of a Jewish child is most receptive to feelings of Jewish identity and joy. For it is then that Judaism has the ability to transcend the limits of being a “subject” or “lesson,” and become an actual part of a child’s day-to-day life. It is at a game built around a Torah theme or a bonfire story told about a Jewish Sage that the lines between fun and study become blurred and the message of Judaism is most absorbed.

And if our travels take us on the road, we can add meaning to that time by having a meaningful conversation with our children or by listening to a Torah class (hundreds of which are available for download for free on our site). And don't forget tea lights if you trip will include a Shabbat.

Wishing everyone a wonderful holiday wherever your travels take you this summer!

What I Learned from My Four Year Old

As many of you know, I was away last weekend attending the Bar Mitzvah of my oldest nephew, Nosson, in Houston TX. Thank G-d, Rivkah and I had a wonderful time -- it was so beautiful to spend the Simcha together with my entire family.

But allow me to share with you another reflection from the trip:

Originally, I had planned to travel alone to the Bar Mitzvah. It was my dear mother who encouraged me to bring Rivkah along. Chana and I wondered how Rivkah would do with the very quick "in and out", not too mention the late nights and her being away from her mother and Mendel. But we decided to go ahead with the plan and we prepared Rivkah for the trip, telling her that she was a big girl who could now travel with her "Tatty" and see all of her cousins at the Bar Mitzva. Rivkah even had to do a few special "big girl" Mitzvot the week before we left. And when the day came, she was so excited, really feeling old and special at being able to go on this special trip with her father.

Baruch Hashem, she was really great the entire time. Despite the unusual schedules, she was always in a cheerful mood, played very well with her cousins, and handled the flight well even though there was a delay (and the trip took more than eight hours). When someone in Houston commented, "I bet this is because she really feels special being able to go with her "Tatty," a light-bulb went off and I thought of something I learned on that week's Torah Portion.

The Parsha last week began with the instruction "You shall be holy, for I, (Hashem your G-d), am holy." I noticed a commentary I had never seen before from Rabbi Yisroel of Ruzhin who, using a play on words, read the verse this way: "You shall be holy. (How? By training yourself to say) "I am holy." He continued by saying that each time you are tempted to do something improper, you should tell yourself "I am holy and this is not befitting of me." And each time you are considering doing a Mitzvah you should tell yourself "I am holy - doing this is an expression of the real me." Put simply, the way we view ourselves very much influences the way we act.

On the trip last weekend, my daughter looked at herself as old and special, and Baruch Hashem, she acted the part. What a lesson for life! By taking a few minutes each day to think about our G-dly soul and that we indeed inherently holy, we would begin looking at ourselves differently making it that much easier to live a life of holiness illuminated by Torah study and good deeds.

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