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Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Are We All Professionals?

Overnight, parents became teachers, people who always ate out are preparing meals for themselves and their loves ones, and people who worked in teams suddenly find they are fending for themselves. The world has turned upside down. Or perhaps, did it turn downside up?
 

Is there a positive side to all of this?
 

We find an interesting lesson in this week’s Torah portion where it talks about building the courtyard fence. 
 

Seemingly, it was a simple task to set up the foundation blocks, hammer the pegs into the ground, and tighten the string that would hold up the fence surrounding the courtyard. Yet, we find that this task necessitated talented people who knew how to tighten the ropes so that the material would not sail in the wind. It was not enough to have talented individuals to weave the beautiful tapestry, goldsmiths to create the fine gold ornaments for the temple, carpenters to hew the large wood beams, and so on.  Every single task required skilled craftsmanship.
 

This is a lesson for all of us. Until this week, we handed off many of our daily “routine” tasks to others. From educating our children to preparing our meals. Suddenly, we are noticing that these tasks require talent and care, and requires us to step up to the plate and learn quickly how to accomplish these tasks.  Things that we took for granted, not noticing their value, have suddenly been brought into focus and taught us that yes, this too, takes skill.
 

The Torah calls all these talented people Chachmie Lev, meaning caring, wise people. To be one requires not only an understanding of what has to get done, but to do so with passion and sincerity. 
 

We, too, should embrace our “new” roles with wisdom and passion, or to use the more modern vernacular, emotional intelligence, as we embark on this short-term lockdown of our society. 
 

Let’s utilize this quality time with our loved ones to learn together, play together, and be creative together, to create positive family memories together and ultimately, as a nation, we will pull out of this together as a healthy nation!
 

Shabbat Shalom. 

Wash Your Hands!

How important is it to wash your hands? Better yet, is this a new phenomenon? A few weeks ago a doctor stood up in shul and told everyone to start being more careful about shaking hands, about “social distancing,” about the importance of good hygiene, and so on. He even gave us a quick history lesson on why Jews have been spared, historically, from plagues because we have a tradition of washing ourselves more frequently than other peoples.  

 

Where does this tradition come from?  

 

From this week’s Torah portion!  

   

The first thing that the priests did when they entered the tabernacle/temple to serve, was to wash their hands and feet in a specially made wash basin. This was obligatory.   

    

From here we learn that the first thing we do every morning before we say our morning prayers, is wash our hands.  


One may think that this washing of the hands is a “traditional” purification done by the priests before entering the temple, and we just mimic their behavior so that we can remember what they have done. This may be true on some level, but it is much more than just that.   

 

If it were just a ritual purification of the hands, then why did they wash their feet? They didn’t have paved roads like we have today, so they cleaned themselves off so that they could simply be clean, as the verse says, “Prepare yourselves so that you can serve G-d.“ Judaism espouses cleanliness. 

 

That is why many codifiers of Jewish law are of the opinion that it is not enough to just perform the traditional hand washing in the morning before saying prayers, but one must also wash their face, etc.  to be truly clean first thing in the morning before serving G-d 

 

As we enter this hypersensitive mode of not spreading disease from one person to another, we should know that this is not just good manners, but a Torah idea as well.  

 

However, just like we can spread a disease, we can spread positivity. Good deeds spread a lot quicker, because they spread without contact. If you know someone, especially someone elderly who is stuck at home, go grocery shopping for them.  

 

And if you are concerned about your health, perhaps you need your Mezuzah checked to make sure that it is Kosher, give me a call so that I can come over and take a look! Remember, trust in Hashem. He who has the power to heal.  

 

Shabbat Shalom, 

 

 

 

 

 

A Purim Lesson

At the very end of the Purim story, the scroll of Esther tells us how to celebrate the newly established holiday of Purim. It says that in addition to performing the four mitzvot (reading the scroll of Esther, giving gifts of food to your friends, giving money to the poor, and having a festive meal), it explains why we should do all of theseit is not just because our lives were saved. It is much more than that.  

 

 

 

 

The scroll tells us that our lives were turned upside down – in a good way: Everything that we did not expect to happen, happened. The choice was ours and we took it.  

 

 

 

 

What does this mean?  

 

 

 

 

Let us go back to the beginning of the story to have a better appreciation of this ending.  

 

 

 

 

King Ahasuerus threw a big party and invited everyone to come to the party. At the party there were numerous abnormalities. Let’s point out two of them: He offered an abundance of alcoholic beverages but took the unusual step of not imposing on anyone to drink (this was not in vogue at the time)He said, If you want to drink, drink. If not, not. Then, when he ordered his wife, Vashti, to appear in a compromised way and she refused, he was unsure if she deserved the death penalty – for disobeying him king! Under normal circumstances his decision would be clear as day. Why suddenly the doubt? That he needed to be convinced to kill his wife? 

 

 

 

 

From this we can deduce that an underlying theme of the Purim story ifree choice. Vashti had free choice to listen to her husband but she chose not to. The guests at the party had a choice to drink or not to. Some did, some didn’t.  

 

 

 

 

Why is this important to us?  

 

 

 

 

In some way, Ahasuerus opened the minds and hearts of the Jews to look at their own Torah in a way in which they never looked at it before. Until that point, they had followed the Torah because their ancestors did. To take ownership of something, you have to do so out of free will.   

 

 

 

 

Having our life turned upside down can be a good thing, if we end up standing straight up. That is, if we stop to contemplate what just happened. The Jews at the time did just that. They said: Our lives just went through the biggest roller coaster of our generation. We came out on top, seemingly without any major, earth-shattering miracle(they didn’t know of the behind-the-scenes miracles). Yet, the Jews were smart enough to learn a major lesson: We have free choice! Let’s embrace that free choice. Let’s reconnect with the Torah. Let’s make it ours, not only because it is our inheritance, but because we want it. 

 

 

 

 

We too should internalize the lesson of Purim and embrace the lessons of the Torah, with free choice. Not because our parents told us to, but because we want to.   

 

 

 

 

Happy Purim and Shabbat Shalom.   

 

Build for me a Temple

While there are many very famous verses in the Torah, one of them that can be found in many synagogues around the world is, “Build for me a sanctuary so that I can dwell within it.” This verse refers to the commandment that the Jews must build a temporary tabernacle while in the desert, and then build a permanent one in Jerusalem. The only remnant of that permanent structure is the Western Wall on the Temple Mount; hence, it is a very holy place.
 

This verse’s meaning has been interpreted to include “mini-temples,” synagogues that we have built over the last two thousand plus years, and that our synagogues also are places where G-d’s presence is felt, and that He can and does dwell within its four walls.
 

However, we should ask, does it stop there? Can we turn our homes into mini-mini-temples as well? 
 

You might be familiar with the famous rabbinic adage that the world stands on three pillars: on the study of the Torah, on prayer, and on charitable acts.

These three pillars existed in the Temple in Jerusalem. The study of Torah obviously was there.  Prayer was practiced three times a day; and the Temple was the center of charitable acts.
 

We can incorporate these same three ideas into our own homes. We can study Torah, by book or on the internet. Our prayers can be as short as saying a blessing on food or the quick Modeh Ani or one-line of the Shema in the morning. And we can be doing good deeds such as having a charity box at home and putting some money into at least once a day, having guests over, and being kind to your family and friends.
 

In these ways we can make our home a place where G-d can feel welcome.

Thinking About Passover Yet?

 If it is not Purim yet, why are we thinking about Passover?

 

Actually, we think about Passover every day! Jews are obsessed with Passover. Every day we do things to remember the Exodus from Egypt. Rosh Chodesh, which has become known as a “girls’ thing,” was the first Mitzvah to be established, even before the Exodus. Why? It is so that we should know for future generations when Passover falls out, so that it falls out in the spring. And the Torah tells us to wear Tefillin, a “men’s thing,” every day so that we remember the Exodus from Egypt every day.

 

What is the obsession with the Exodus? Granted it was a great miracle, but why isn’t it enough to remember the story once a year when the holiday comes around, just as we remember the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai? Or the story of Purim?

 

The Exodus from Egypt was unique in the sense that it was not an experience that benignly happened to us, with the Jewish people as observers, even if it affected us and made a great impression on us. The Exodus was different. We were not only part of the experience; we were the experience itself! The transformation happened outside of us and inside of us. Egypt, in Hebrew is Mitzroyim. Change the vowels, and you have the Hebrew word Meitzorim, limitations and boundaries. The Exodus was not only from within the confines of the physical borders of Egypt, but from the personal limitations and self-imposed boundaries that we put on ourselves. Going out of Egypt is not a one-time success story; it is a daily battle. It takes faith in G-d, and faith in oneself to overcome our struggles and overcome the challenges of life, and make it through our own exile.

 

This is why an integral part of Judaism is to remember every single day, even multiple times a day, that G-d took us out of Egypt so that we know that, we too, with the help of G-d, can overcome our own personal Egypt, and celebrate our own exodus.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

The Choice to Procreate

 Honoring our parents seems to be a given, but is it?
 

Why are we drawn towards respect for our parents? Why are they like “G-d” in our eyes? After all, they are just two human beings who decided to have us and raise us. 
 

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the Ten Commandments. The Midrash tells us that the first five of the Ten Commandments are between “man and G-d,” while the second set of five is between “man and man.” Based on this idea, why is the commandment to “honor your father and mother” in the first five, between “man and G-d,” and not between “man and man,” which would seem to be more fitting?
 

Perhaps there is more to begetting children than what meets the eye. A man and woman can be one hundred percent healthy and still not have children, either for medical reasons or by choice. This does not make them any less human. (Did you see the latest issue of Philadelphia Magazines cover story: “Why doesn’t anyone want to have kids anymore?”) However, when a man and woman choose to have children, they are acting G-dly. When a couple decides to have children, they are not only procreating, they are bringing G-d into their lives—they are “partnering with G-d.” Therefore, when a child respects their parents, it is not only an act between man and man, but between man and G-d.
 

This is why it is important for us, when we are children, to not only be kind to our parents, but to have respect, and to be in awe of our parents, for acting “G-d-like” and choosing to bring us into this world.  For this act, we should be forever grateful. 
 

In just a few weeks my mother will be celebrating her 70th birthday. In her honor our family got together to celebrate her life and to say thank you for all that she does for us. She is a woman who not only brought me and my siblings into this world but created this family (see picture) and built a world all of its own. Her home is always open. Her Shabbat table is always surrounded by guests from around the world. The bedrooms are constantly filled with people from who-knows-where. And, if you think she would have slowed down after my father passed way more than ten years ago, you are wrong.  My mother is a positive person, always living life to the fullest! She lifts us all up, inspiring a generation to do more good, to change the world for the better, and to make our homes, G-dly homes.  
 

May G-d bless her to live a happy life, a long life and may we all merit to give her much Jewish nachas.  Shabbat Shalom.
 

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Going Out of Your Way

If you ask 10 random people if they think of themselves as kind, the answer in 9 out of 10 cases would be yes. If you press them a little further and ask them if they are willing to go out of their way to do a good deed for someone, now you have them thinking. Not because they are not kind people, but because at this point, they are being asked to go out of their comfort zone. You see, there is a difference between just doing good and going that extra mile.

 

Last week’s Torah portion taught us about the first seven plagues, and in this week’s portion we learn about the last three of the ten. We learn that only at the last plague, the death of the first born, do we find the expression, “G-d went out” during the plague of the death of the first-born child. So what happened during the other plagues—was G-d not involved? Surely, He was! Yet this time something very different took place. During the other nine plagues all that G-d had to do was give instructions to Moses and Aaron as to how the plagues should come forth—and so they did. This time around, G-d wanted to make sure that nothing went wrong.

 

G-d was concerned—What if there was a Jewish first-born in the house of an Egyptian? Would he be killed by mistake? Granted he didn’t belong there, and the fact that he was there should tell us something about this fellow (as in, what is he doing there in the first place?). So G-d says He will “go out” and roam the streets, so to speak, to make sure that nothing happens to any Jew.

 

G-d went “out of His way” to protect the Jew. The ungodly Jew. The Jew who didn’t care that he was hanging out in the non-Jewish section of town, in the homes of anti-Semites! Yet, G-d didn’t give up on them and went Himself to find them! This is what it means to go out of our way to help a fellow person. 

 

Yes, we think of ourselves as fine people. But are we willing to go out of our way for another person, especially when they make us uncomfortable? That is the question. Let us learn from G-d how to do so. 

On Being Angry

Is it ever worth getting angry? On the one hand it shows that you are a person of passion, filled with so much emotion that a situation can move you to the point where you are boiling with anger. However, if you look at it from another perspective, it shows that you allowed a situation to get the better of you. And then you might come across as cold and callous.

 
How do you balance your emotions and yet show that you are serious?
 
If we look at this week’s Torah portion, we see something very interesting. G-d was about to punish the Egyptians for the suffering they caused the Jews. However, before He did so, he would perform, through Aaron and Moses, a little miracle.
 
Aaron took his staff and threw it down on the floor and it turned into a serpent. The Egyptian magicians were unfazed; they took their walking sticks and did the same. Aaron’s serpent then returned to the status of a staff and only then, swallowed the Egyptians’ staffs as they were serpents. Voila! Two miracles in just a few minutes.     
 
Our first question is why the need for this miracle in the first place? Don’t the miracles of the plagues make enough of an impression so that G-d does not have to perform this little meaningless trick as well? In addition, we must also ask, what is the meaning behind this double miracle—the staff turning into a serpent and then eating the other serpents, not as a serpent, but once it become a staff again first?    
 
Perhaps we can say that this was not about punishment, but about establishing the rules of engagement. G-d was showing the Egyptians who was in charge, and to prepare the Egyptians for the plagues to come. 
 
You see, a serpent is an “angry” animal. It slays. Therefore, first G-d sent the warning bells that bad things were going to happen. However, G-d also wanted Pharaoh to know that the punishments were not coming out of anger, but out of strength, which is symbolized by Aaron’s staff, not the serpent. 
 
That is why the miracle – as a way of introduction – is for the staff to turn into a serpent, but then to turn back into a staff and consume the other serpents, since being a serpent is not a good way of life. Being strong is.   
 
 
 
 
 
 
On Being Angry
 
Is it ever worth getting angry? On the one hand it shows that you are a person of passion, filled with so much emotion that a situation can move you to the point where you are boiling with anger. However, if you look at it from another perspective, it shows that you allowed a situation to get the better of you. And then you might come across as cold and callous.
 
How do you balance your emotions and yet show that you are serious?
 
If we look at this week’s Torah portion, we see something very interesting. G-d was about to punish the Egyptians for the suffering they caused the Jews. However, before He did so, he would perform, through Aaron and Moses, a little miracle.
 
Aaron took his staff and threw it down on the floor and it turned into a serpent. The Egyptian magicians were unfazed; they took their walking sticks and did the same. Aaron’s serpent then returned to the status of a staff and only then, swallowed the Egyptians’ staffs as they were serpents. Voila! Two miracles in just a few minutes.     
 
Our first question is why the need for this miracle in the first place? Don’t the miracles of the plagues make enough of an impression so that G-d does not have to perform this little meaningless trick as well? In addition, we must also ask, what is the meaning behind this double miracle—the staff turning into a serpent and then eating the other serpents, not as a serpent, but once it become a staff again first?    
 
Perhaps we can say that this was not about punishment, but about establishing the rules of engagement. G-d was showing the Egyptians who was in charge, and to prepare the Egyptians for the plagues to come. 
 
You see, a serpent is an “angry” animal. It slays. Therefore, first G-d sent the warning bells that bad things were going to happen. However, G-d also wanted Pharaoh to know that the punishments were not coming out of anger, but out of strength, which is symbolized by Aaron’s staff, not the serpent. 
 
That is why the miracle – as a way of introduction – is for the staff to turn into a serpent, but then to turn back into a staff and consume the other serpents, since being a serpent is not a good way of life. Being strong is.   
 
 

On Being Angry

Is it ever worth getting angry? On the one hand it shows that you are a person of passion, filled with so much emotion that a situation can move you to the point where you are boiling with anger. However, if you look at it from another perspective, it shows that you allowed a situation to get the better of you. And then you might come across as cold and callous.

 
How do you balance your emotions and yet show that you are serious?
 
If we look at this week’s Torah portion, we see something very interesting. G-d was about to punish the Egyptians for the suffering they caused the Jews. However, before He did so, he would perform, through Aaron and Moses, a little miracle.
 
Aaron took his staff and threw it down on the floor and it turned into a serpent. The Egyptian magicians were unfazed; they took their walking sticks and did the same. Aaron’s serpent then returned to the status of a staff and only then, swallowed the Egyptians’ staffs as they were serpents. Voila! Two miracles in just a few minutes.     
 
Our first question is why the need for this miracle in the first place? Don’t the miracles of the plagues make enough of an impression so that G-d does not have to perform this little meaningless trick as well? In addition, we must also ask, what is the meaning behind this double miracle—the staff turning into a serpent and then eating the other serpents, not as a serpent, but once it become a staff again first?    
 
Perhaps we can say that this was not about punishment, but about establishing the rules of engagement. G-d was showing the Egyptians who was in charge, and to prepare the Egyptians for the plagues to come. 
 
You see, a serpent is an “angry” animal. It slays. Therefore, first G-d sent the warning bells that bad things were going to happen. However, G-d also wanted Pharaoh to know that the punishments were not coming out of anger, but out of strength, which is symbolized by Aaron’s staff, not the serpent. 
 
That is why the miracle – as a way of introduction – is for the staff to turn into a serpent, but then to turn back into a staff and consume the other serpents, since being a serpent is not a good way of life. Being strong is.   
 
 
 
 
 
 
On Being Angry
 
Is it ever worth getting angry? On the one hand it shows that you are a person of passion, filled with so much emotion that a situation can move you to the point where you are boiling with anger. However, if you look at it from another perspective, it shows that you allowed a situation to get the better of you. And then you might come across as cold and callous.
 
How do you balance your emotions and yet show that you are serious?
 
If we look at this week’s Torah portion, we see something very interesting. G-d was about to punish the Egyptians for the suffering they caused the Jews. However, before He did so, he would perform, through Aaron and Moses, a little miracle.
 
Aaron took his staff and threw it down on the floor and it turned into a serpent. The Egyptian magicians were unfazed; they took their walking sticks and did the same. Aaron’s serpent then returned to the status of a staff and only then, swallowed the Egyptians’ staffs as they were serpents. Voila! Two miracles in just a few minutes.     
 
Our first question is why the need for this miracle in the first place? Don’t the miracles of the plagues make enough of an impression so that G-d does not have to perform this little meaningless trick as well? In addition, we must also ask, what is the meaning behind this double miracle—the staff turning into a serpent and then eating the other serpents, not as a serpent, but once it become a staff again first?    
 
Perhaps we can say that this was not about punishment, but about establishing the rules of engagement. G-d was showing the Egyptians who was in charge, and to prepare the Egyptians for the plagues to come. 
 
You see, a serpent is an “angry” animal. It slays. Therefore, first G-d sent the warning bells that bad things were going to happen. However, G-d also wanted Pharaoh to know that the punishments were not coming out of anger, but out of strength, which is symbolized by Aaron’s staff, not the serpent. 
 
That is why the miracle – as a way of introduction – is for the staff to turn into a serpent, but then to turn back into a staff and consume the other serpents, since being a serpent is not a good way of life. Being strong is.   
 
 

How to Stop Hate


 
Lately, I have been asked about all the anti-Semitism that we currently see in America. Although we are not happy with this new wave, it is not new to us. Jews have been experiencing anti-Semitism here since the birth of our nation, but long before that, while we were in Egypt.
 
It all started when we were in Egypt way back when, after Joseph died, which occurs in this week’s Torah portion. “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” The rabbis point out that this can be taken literally: “A new king.” Or, the king made out as if he were new, i.e., he made out as if he did not know Joseph. Either way we interpret the verse, we see that anti-Semitism is born. The lack of appreciation for what Joseph did for the Egyptians was evident, but then it became time to strike back.
 
To gain a deeper understanding of this concept and how we as Jews are affected by it, we should continue reading the story. If we look closely, we see that two stories are told concurrently: the story that happens to us from the outside and the story that happens to us from within our own community.
 
I would like to focus on the story that happens from within our own community.
 
In the original story, after Moses neutralized an Egyptian for beating up a fellow Jew, he found out that word about his violence spread to the palace and his life was placed in danger. Moses said, “Behold, it became known.” In other words, people were talking negatively about Moses.  Clearly, someone reported his deed to the palace, so he concluded that there was an informer amongst the Jews. Such behavior was considered unacceptable.
 
Moses escaped and years passed. Eventually G-d appointed Moses to be the leader of the Jewish people and to take them out of their exile. Moses witnessed their suffering, which became so much worse than it was before he left. Moses said, “Now I understand why the Jews are suffering.” He didn’t mean that as a form of punishment, but rather as a form of enlightenment.
 
You see, even when we suffer and experience anti-Semitism (which is inexcusable), and even if it was brought upon us because of our own behavior (although that is not always the case), there can also be a silver lining. That is what Moses witnessed—Moses saw that the Jews came together. No longer was one Jew talking negatively about another. They were not backstabbing each other. Instead, he observed a united Jewish community. When his eyes beheld that scene, he knew that they would be redeemed. There would be an end to the suffering, an end to their pain.  
 
In our own time we have witnessed this as well. Less than two weeks ago on a beautiful Sunday morning, Jews from all stripes and colors walked hand in hand. Orthodox Jews and Reform Jews. Chasidic Jews and Conservative Jews. It didn’t matter because labels don’t matter. A Jew is a Jew, and we stand by each other’s side. Each put politics and differences aside and were united with one voice. We are one family, one people. When we witness such unity, we know that there will be an end to the hatred in this world.
 
Just as in Moses’s day when the Jews triumphed, so too today, we will succeed in stopping hatred from spreading and we will dispel the darkness with light, and replace hate with love, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity.  

 

The Nature of Nature

Two rabbis are sitting and eating a meal. One turns to his fellow and says, “Share a thought.” He responds, “It is not safe to speak while you eat.” But when he finishes, he says, “Jacob, our father, never died.” “But haven’t they given a eulogy at a funeral and buried him in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Chevron?” the first rabbi asks. “Yes indeed,” the second rabbi answers, “but since his progeny are alive, so is he alive.”

At first glance this is a typical story found in the Talmud, which is trying to teach us a lesson about life: If we live a meaningful life and teach our children how to live theirs, we will live on through them. However, upon deeper reflection we can see that there is much more to the two rabbis’ dialogue.

For example, why was it necessary to point out not to talk while eating? He could have just kept quiet. When he said that Jacob never died, did he think it was meant literally? Why didn’t he just ask what was meant?

The deeper conversation is about whether or not Judaism engages with nature or just casually interacts with it.

Both rabbis are practical and know that they live in the natural world and that they need to eat to survive. They are discussing whether they do so as a necessity or for pleasure.

Is nature meant to be a peripheral part of our lives, with our main focus on G-d and spirituality? Or is nature meant to be integrated into our lives so that it becomes an essential part of our spiritual experience?

If you are of the thinking that it is the latter, then you might want to “share a Torah thought while you are eating.” In this way you can combine the mandate with the holy. This is what the first rabbi tells the second. How does he respond? You might be right, but that is unsafe, as the food can go down the wrong pipe.

“If you want to know how to merge the two worlds together,” responds the second rabbi, “then you should know that Jacob never died. You see, when you combine the two worlds of heaven and earth, nature and higher-than-nature, then even after Jacob dies, he still lives on, through his children.”

This is the deeper meaning of this conversation in the Talmud. The rabbis are teaching us to have a more nuanced appreciation of life. To integrate our thinking and behavior not only to wonder how it will impact us, but how it will impact our children and the people around us. Jacob didn’t live in a bubble and that is why we are still talking about him today. We, too, should live our lives in such a way that we will make a difference, and in order to do so, we have to understand the nature of our little world.

The Nature of Nature

Two rabbis are sitting and eating a meal. One turns to his fellow and says, “Share a thought.” He responds, “It is not safe to speak while you eat.” But when he finishes, he says, “Jacob, our father, never died.” “But haven’t they given a eulogy at a funeral and buried him in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Chevron?” the first rabbi asks. “Yes indeed,” the second rabbi answers, “but since his progeny are alive, so is he alive.” 

At first glance this is a typical story found in the Talmud, which is trying to teach us a lesson about life: If we live a meaningful life and teach our children how to live theirs, we will live on through them. However, upon deeper reflection we can see that there is much more to the two rabbis’ dialogue.
For example, why was it necessary to point out not to talk while eating? He could have just kept quiet. When he said that Jacob never died, did he think it was meant literally? Why didn’t he just ask what was meant? 
 
The deeper conversation is about whether or not Judaism engages with nature or just casually interacts with it. 
 
Both rabbis are practical and know that they live in the natural world and that they need to eat to survive. They are discussing whether they do so as a necessity or for pleasure. 
 
Is nature meant to be a peripheral part of our lives, with our main focus on G-d and spirituality? Or is nature meant to be integrated into our lives so that it becomes an essential part of our spiritual experience? 
 
If you are of the thinking that it is the latter, then you might want to “share a Torah thought while you are eating.” In this way you can combine the mandate with the holy. This is what the first rabbi tells the second. How does he respond? You might be right, but that is unsafe, as the food can go down the wrong pipe. 
 
“If you want to know how to merge the two worlds together,” responds the second rabbi, “then you should know that Jacob never died. You see, when you combine the two worlds of heaven and earth, nature and higher-than-nature, then even after Jacob dies, he still lives on, through his children.”  
This is the deeper meaning of this conversation in the Talmud. The rabbis are teaching us to have a more nuanced appreciation of life. To integrate our thinking and behavior not only to wonder how it will impact us, but how it will impact our children and the people around us. Jacob didn’t live in a bubble and that is why we are still talking about him today. We, too, should live our lives in such a way that we will make a difference, and in order to do so, we have to understand the nature of our little world. 

Standing Together

In wake of the recent anti-Semitic attacks in the New York area, we have seen the Jewish community come together in solidarity. These rallies are important and hopefully they will send a message to the larger community that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” And the Jewish community will not stay quiet as Jews are attacked. 


However, if you listen to the commentators discuss why this segment of the Jewish population is being attacked, they posit that it is because they “look Jewish.” If that is true, then the question becomes how do we stand together if we don’t dress like them? 

Standing together doesn’t mean being like each other. It means recognizing that we each need each other. Just as the hand needs the foot, so too does each segment of the Jewish community need the other. There is no segment that is more or less significant. We are truly one. One body.  

This realization leads to a higher level of unity when we start learning from each other. When we see that each Jew – with all our differences – has something to teach another. 

The ultimate goal is achieved when we recognize that there is no difference between us. We are truly brothers and sisters.  

This kind of relationship of standing up for one another is learned from Judah in this week’s Torah portion. When he approaches his brother Joseph and he demands the release of Benjamin, he says, “I guaranteed my life on this life.”   

Judah teaches all Jews for all the generations to come that we must stand up for each other no matter the risks involved. That is what it means to be a Jew. 

When we stand up for each other, we become a cohesive Jewish community! 

Why Did the Maccabees Fight?

As Chanukah approaches, we busy ourselves with preparing the Menorah, the dreidel, and the parties, and the joy that comes along with them. However, it is worth taking a few minutes to ponder what motivated the Maccabees to risk their lives to fight the Hellenists. 

 

The Maccabees’ lives were not in danger. They were permitted to practice almost all of the mitzvot – even though a few laws were forbidden, such as circumcision. They were even permitted to learn Torah! Well, they were not allowed to say the blessing before they learned, but how bad is that? Could they not endure such a comfortable life under Greek rule that it is was worth putting their lives at risk, just because they suffered some “inconveniences” regarding the nuance of the law?  

To strengthen the question: According to Jewish law, we can only put our life at risk if we are challenged to disobey any of the three cardinal sins: idolatry, adultery, or murder. None of these were being forced upon the Jews. This begs the question, why, from a Halachic perspective, would the Maccabees put their lives in danger? 

 

The Maccabees saw a bigger picture. They recognized that the fabric of the Jewish people was coming apart at the seams—Jews were assimilating into Greek culture. They didn’t have time to worry about the nitty-gritty of the law. Correctly and according to Greek law, they could have sat in the comfort of their homes and under their palm trees and just concerned themselves with their own needs, and when Greek soldiers came around, they could have pulled out their dreidels and started playing so that they would not be caught teaching Torah to the children, the way it should be taught. Yet that was not who they were. They were warriors! They were leaders! They put the community’s needs before their own. When they noticed that the Jewish community was “slipping” into the Greek way of life, they said, “We have to do something about this. We must bring Judaism back into the center of people’s lives.” 

Interestingly, G-d recognizes this and performs a miracle with oil – making one day’s worth of oil last eight days – to teach the Jewish people that by adding a little light into their lives they can transform their world and make it into a holy place. They can rid themselves of the Greek influence and reconnect with G-d. 

 

This message applies to our generation as much as it did to theirs. We, too, are distracted by our culture and can slip into our surroundings and get confused as to what it means to be a Jew, to be able to define to ourselves what Judaism means to us and to our family and community. But on Chanukah, when we kindle a light, we remind ourselves that we have what it takes to stand up to the forces of the world that try to silence us, and we tell them that we will always be a light unto the world.  

Nothing can stop us! 

Happy Chanukah 

 

Every Small step Counts

We find something very interesting in this week’s Torah portion. When the Torah recalls the wives whom Esau married, one of them is named “Basmat.” The commentators point out that she is the same woman as “Machalat,” daughter of Yishmoel, who was mentioned two weeks ago. Basmat is her real name, but, we wonder, why was she referred to earlier as Machalat? Perhaps because Machalat means “forgiveness” and on the day of one’s wedding, a bride and groom are forgiven of their sins. 

If you recall, two weeks ago I wrote about the lack of sincerity on the part of Esau upon his marriage to Basmat/Machalat, yet it is from this marriage that the Midrash teaches that when anyone gets married they are forgiven from all their sins, just as Esau was! Wow.
 
How can we learn from such an insincere marriage that all marriages start with a clean slate?
 
By learning the whole Midrash, we will garner a deeper meaning.
The Midrash goes on to tell us that there are three times in one’s life when they can start anew (in addition to every year on Yom Kippur):
1.      When someone converts to Judaism
2.      When someone is appointed to a position of greatness
3.      On the day of one’s marriage
What are the common denominators between these three seemingly random situations? The outcome of all three will result in growth:
1.      In one’s connection to G-d, through the performance of Mitzvot
2.      Through making an impact in this world
3.      Through having children and performing Mitzvot in the home that you build together as a couple
 
Looking at it this way, it doesn’t really matter that Esau wasn’t sincere. Of course it would be more meaningful if he were sincere but the main thing is that he is doing the best that he can.
 
This is the lesson that all of us can glean even from a person like Esau. We might not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that our “small” contributions to society are meaningless just because they are not “perfect.” We should try to do our best, and so long as we try and the results are there – even if they are imperfect – we know that we have done our part.
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