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Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

A Lesson Is Worth Sharing

During this time leading up to the elections you see many people getting involved in politics. The simple reason is because people want to make a difference. Yet, some people choose to limit their influence to just their immediate friends and family, while others extend their influence beyond their tight circle of friends.  

Is one kind of person better than the next? What is in the DNA of the people who become activists?

This week’s Torah portion introduces us to Noah, a righteous man in his generation. Many

commentators point out that in his generation he was righteous, but if you compared him to other great leaders, he would not even come close. In what way was he great and in what way did he fail?  

Over the life span of the Jewish people there were three great leaders. In particular, we can learn from Abraham, our forefather, Moses, our teacher, and King David. By understanding their lives better, we will also have a better grasp on the life of Noah.  

Abraham: He didn’t sit back waiting to find G-d; instead he searched for meaning in the world around him. This active search helped him find and develop a deep faith in G-d and eventually, a drive to teach others about G-d. He, together with his wife, Sarah, were on a mission to teach everyone they met about G-d, the creator of the world.  

Moses: The giver of the laws of the Torah, he not only didn’t find the world to be a hindrance to G-d, he saw the world and everything inside it to be elevated in the service of G-d through the prism of how they can and should be used. Moses taught us that by us learning Torah and fulfilling the Mitzvot with physical objects, we are able to make a connection between ourselves and the divine.  

David: The concept of “kingdom” is not only that we have a king for the nation of Israel, but that we recognize that G-d is the king of the world. This idea we mention on the high holidays that “G-d is our King” is no longer just a string of words; now it becomes a relatable concept to us. From David’s time on and continuing on during his son’s, King Solomon, days, not only did the Jews recognize G-d, but the nations of the world as well came to see the role that G-d plays in our lives. The gift of the Jews became evident to all. 

  

On a microcosmic level, Noah lived these three levels, but he kept them to himself, but only during the time that he was in the Ark. Our lesson is to apply these teachings to our lives today. 

 

We, too, should have a strong foundation of faith in G-d. However, we should not rely on faith alone, but take that faith and turn it into action. When we behave in a way that is connected to

G-d's will, we are not only doing what He wants, we are transforming this world into a G-dly world. 

Finally, it is important that we spread the word, that we share this message with others, so that others too can enhance the world and make this world a more G-dly place. A place where all can see the beauty of G-d and how all creatures of this world can get along one with the other, not only in the “ark” but even outside, in the “real world.”  

What’s in a Name?

William Shakespeare wrote, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This implies that there is more to love than just a name. Yet, we see that we have a need to give names to everything and anything. Where does this innate need come from? 

We find in this week’s Torah portion that one of the first tasks G-d gave to Adam was to name all of the living creatures! That’s right—he was given the task of naming the animals of the land, the birds of the sky, and even the small living creatures. Why was it necessary for Adam to give all of the animals and birds names? It’s not like he was going to be communicating with them.

Perhaps we can answer this question with another question. Did Adam name the fish as well? (It is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah one way or the other.)

On a most basic level, the reason why things in this world need names, be they objects or living beings, is to identify what they are. This basic appreciation of names is what Shakespeare was referring to. However, there is a more significant role that names play in Judaism, and that is that having a name benefits the object itself, as well.  

What kind of benefit does an object get from its name? The name reveals its essence and connects it to its source of life. However, fish are always in water and never separated from their source, so one may argue, they do not need to be named since they are always connected to their source of life. (Perhaps, though, one might want to name fish so that they can be identified, but not for the more meaningful reason of giving it life.)

We can take the power of a name even further. Names not only give a living being a connection to its source, a name reveals within it hidden resources that it might not even know it has. That is why even today we place so much emphasis on giving a Jewish name to a baby. Giving a baby a name is not only a way to identify the baby, it is a way for us to complete the process of creation, to strengthen the bond between creator and created. In a sense, G-d is giving us the opportunity to become a partner in creation, by giving us the ability to give a name.  

Three Days, Three Lessons

 This year the High Holidays have been so different, yet they have been so meaningful. When we are faced with the unexpected, we tend to look deeper inside ourselves, and in those experiences, we tend to find little life messages.

Year after year, we come to synagogue and go through the motions; some years we are more inspired than others. This year though, to be inspired while sitting in a tent at the Chabad Center, requires much more effort.  One really needs to pay attention to the words being read, to the theme of the Torah portion being chanted, and to the songs being sung, to really get in the mood.

If you pay attention to the Torah reading, you will notice that the first day’s portion is about Abraham and Sara. On the surface, we read this section of the Torah since they had difficulty having children and they were blessed with a child on Rosh Hashana.

On the second day we read about the binding of Isaac and how he was saved by a ram. We read this because of the message to be ready to give up one’s life for G-d, as well as because the Shofar comes from a ram. 

However, upon deeper reflection, one can say that the first day is about Abraham and the second day is about Isaac. What is the difference between these two men?

 

Abraham taught us to recognize G-d as the creator of the universe. Once we recognize G-d as creator, we want G-d to become our king. Abraham traveled all over the land and beyond to spread this message, letting every person know that there is a G-d in the world that needs to be reckoned with.  

Isaac takes this message one step further. He internalizes it and makes it personal. G-d is not only the king of the world, G-d is “my king;” what does G-d want from me? Isaac busies himself uncovering the wells of knowledge, fulfilling G-d’s wishes, but he never goes far from home. He stays in the Holy Land of Israel, not venturing away from the source of G-d’s wisdom and blessings. He never shakes off the yoke of heaven.

We can say that this is the essence of Rosh Hashana, recognizing G-d as our creator and trying to come closer to Him. To become one with G-d.

What then is the meaning of Yom Kippur? 

Well, let us see what Jacob, the third of our patriarchs, can teach us. How can one connect to someone else? By doing what the other wants. How can someone connect to someone else’s essence? Learn how they think. G-d gave us the Torah, G-d’s wisdom, G-d’s essence. When we learn Torah, we are connecting to G-d’s essence. Jacob was known for being a “man of the tent” because he spent years studying Torah in a tent. Is it a coincidence that we are spending this year’s High Holidays in a tent?  What better way to connect to Jacob this Yom Kippur? Now more than ever before, you can join a Torah class – virtually – at any time live on Zoom, or a pre-recorded class on our website. The choices are endless. 

Now that we are spending more time at home, let’s take advantage of our time, and make the connection with G-d the way Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did.

G’mar Chatima Tova!

The Long Short Way

Once a man came to a fork in the road, and not knowing which was the quickest way to town, he asked a child sitting nearby for directions. The child quipped, “This way is the short but long way, and that way is the long but short way.” The man went the shorter way and quickly found himself at the wall of the city, but found he was unable to enter. He made an about-face, and hurried back to the child and said, “Why did you say that this was the short road to town?” The child responded, “I said it was the short but long road!” And he went on to explain, “Once you get there easily, you cannot get in; you have to come back and go the long way around. However, you can also take the long but shorter way. Although up front it is long, once you get there, you are in the city, without any obstacles in the way.”

This story is the story of our lives. We look for success instantaneously—if not now, then at least as soon as possible. Even when it comes to COVID testing, we not only want a “rapid test” that gives results in 15-20 minutes (vs. a few days), we want the answer even quicker than that. We do not want an answer to the pandemic tomorrow, we wanted it yesterday.  


More importantly, we want G-d to make sense to us, we want to understand. We also want to have faith to rely on when logic will not do. We want it all. How do we achieve it? Are we being unreasonable? After all, it is Rosh Hashana in just another week and we are faced with yet another dilemma: how do we observe the holiday this year? Do we go to shul? Do we stay and pray all alone? How do we guarantee that the holiday and the prayers are meaningful?  

Fear not. Not only does the Torah address these concerns, it does so in this week’s Torah portion. The verse says: “The word is near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, so that you can fulfil it.” The verse is emphasizing that to be close to G-d there is a three-step process. Speech, feelings, and action.  What does this mean? 

First and foremost, a person must spend time learning, reading, studying, and asking questions. One must build their knowledge base. Without this foundation it is difficult to get to the next point in our life, which is to develop the feelings in our heart. If we want to become emotional, to have feelings for G-d and for Judaism, and to make our prayers heartfelt, it cannot happen in a vacuum. We have to invest our energy and time. That is why the words “in your heart” follows after “in your mouth”—only after we have studied and incorporated the ideas into our minds, creating an intellectual attachment, can we strengthen our faith-based connection as well. However, it cannot stop there. 

It is important to bring our intellect and emotions into action. It is within our behavior, our consistent conduct, that we see what commitment really means. Our lives have ups and downs; reason alone cannot carry through every day, some days we need faith. Faith alone is at times not enough; we want answers. However, it is the reliability of our actions, of the daily Mitzvot that we perform that ultimately clinches our connection, the routine of our daily life, perhaps even the monotonousness of it all, that merges faith and reason together as one. 

During the week before Rosh Hashana we start prepping for the Big Day. By reciting Selichot, we want to get in the zone, so that when the day comes, we are ready. 

Plan ahead, be ready in time. 


Politically Unbiased

 The political conventions were a time for each party to get their messages out. A time to exchange ideas, ideologies, and argue over the future needs of our country. Instead, the primary message was – from both parties – the other party and its leadership are not able to lead, why each party thinks that they are better. Our country had, and always will have, two major political parties, so it is not new that we have differences of opinions. However, such an animosity that one party has toward another, is sad.   

 

I recently heard a senator describe the political scene in America today as a “Civil War of Words.” 

 

As a Rabbi I walk in the middle. I am politically unbiased; I avoid taking sides. Yet many see this as a cop-out. The more heated people get with their views the more they want me “in their camp,” and when I don’t join, even if I am on “their side,” they still have a difficult time with me.

 

This week’s Torah portion explains why taking that middle-of-the-road stance is an “active decision,” not an inactive one.

 

The Torah says to “walk in G-d’s way.” What does it mean to walk in G-d’s way? Maimonides explains that this means that we should act like G-d. Just as G-d is kind, so should we be kind. For example, we should visit the sick, help the poor, give charity, etc. Just as G-d has compassion, so we too, should be compassionate, and the list goes on.

 

Here is a question for you: G-d already commanded us to help the poor, give charity, visit the sick, etc. What does this statement “walk in G-d’s ways” add to what we already know?

 

The Torah is telling us what kind of attitude to have while we are performing these actions. You see, we can perform an act without any feelings – simply out of an obligation, or out of self-aggrandizing – such as, “I visit the sick.” The feeling, the heart, that should go into the action, however, is lost. G-d is telling us to perform this act, “the same way as I do it.” Do it for the sake of the recipient, not for yourself. Do it selflessly.

 

Walking in G-d’s way means that you take a step back and view the world from G-d’s perspective; you see the big picture, and you don’t get caught up in the little things. You care about everyone, without judgment. You don’t help only those who agree with you politically, but not those who don’t. You decide to be unbiasedly kind.

 

There are so many distractions these days that it becomes difficult for us to separate the message from the messenger. However, if we can distance ourselves a little bit, and stand above the fray to take G-d’s view of the world, we will be able to walk in G-d’s way and get along with our neighbor—even if we don’t see eye to eye on every matter. Because in the big picture, what matters more than anything else in the world is that we “Love our neighbor as ourselves.” 

 

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.

Building Fences

Fences are meant to define a property line. Perhaps they even offer some privacy and as the saying from Robert Frost goes, “Good fences make good neighbors.” However, if you think about this idea of a fence, it might bring people closer together—not from kindness, but from lack of fighting. 


Perhaps there is another kind of fence. A fence that comes from personal growth, a fence that can teach us how to be a better person. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we are taught that when we build a new home, we should build a fence – not necessarily on the property line, but on the roof! Why on the roof? For practical reasons. Roofs were used as porches (we are talking about flat roofs) and someone could easily fall off the roof; therefore, the Torah is teaching us that it is our obligation to protect those who live in, or visit, our home. 

Question: Is a synagogue or public building obligated to build a fence on its roof? Since it is “ownerless,” the question becomes who is obligated to build one? Since no one really owns the building, there is no obligation to have a fence. However, the Temple that was not only supported by the public, but the public was “invested” in it by partnering and making the Temple their “home,” did in fact have a fence. 

We should look at ourselves as mini-temples. We too must invest in our own wellbeing, and make sure that we are well fortified. As we build our own self-confidence, we should keep in mind that we also need to have a fence to keep our self-confidence in check so that it doesn’t turn from confidence into arrogance. Especially as we reach the roof, the highest level of success, we might start to think of ourselves in the most flattering terms. The Torah teaches us that when we reach the “top floor” – or to use the Torah’s terminology, the “roof”— it is of utmost importance to put up that fence, so that we don’t fall off. 

The Torah doesn’t say to stop doing what we are doing – just the opposite: We must continue being successful, but we should do so with humility. The fence is a reminder. 

Can I dare say it is like a face mask? It is a protection. It protects us, and it protects others. 

Think about this as we prepare for Rosh Hashana. 

It’s All About Me. Or Is It?

I must think about myself first. The world surrounds me. We have become a culture that celebrates the individual, but more than that, on some level a culture that convinces us that our primary focus should be on what is better “for me.” If it suits me, then I should do it and if it doesn’t, then I should not.  

For example, the most recent hotly debated issue is about schools opening in the fall. The debate is not exclusively about what is best for the children, but mixed into the arguments we hear issues such as “I am worried what could happen in an in-person environment,” or, “I need my kids to go back to school. I can’t work at home with them around.” Neither of these arguments is about what is better for the child even during this COVID cloud, but about how the parents feel. It’s all about the “me.” 

Is this me culture a bad thing? After all, we do need a guiding post as we make our decisions.  

Let’s see what the Torah has to say on the matter.  

In this week’s Torah portion, there is a verse that says: “You shall not eat an abomination.” How would you explain this verse? If this is referring to a food that G-d prohibits, then this verse seems to be repetitive. Therefore, Rashi, the famous commentator, says that if it is an abomination to you, you shall not eat it. This is about you, not a general, overall statement.   

 

There are times when we know in our own hearts what is “kosher” and what is not. What is right and what is wrong. What is an abomination—to us. This is not about what others will think about us, but rather how we think about ourselves. No one is judging us; we are judging ourselves. This is an internal audit of our own soul and we are the auditor. The question that we should ask ourselves is: Are we proud of the “trick” that we are playing on ourselves, that we are using to justify our decision? Are we really being truthful or our we outsmarting ourselves by not addressing the issues head on? Is our decision selfishly motivated or is it G-d-motivated? This is a question that we should be asking in every area in our lives.  

As we work on ourselves to not outsmart ourselves and to be there for others, we pray that G-d will provide the smarts to those who are working to help us move on from this pandemic into a brighter future. 

What is in a Bribe?

Bribe. The word itself smells of corruption. No one should ever take a bribe. The Torah testifies to the fact that a bribe “blinds even the wise” to be able to judge a case clearly. G-d himself tells us in this week’s Torah portion that we cannot bribe Him! That’s how malicious a bribe is.


However, let’s be truthful, don’t we all take bribes from time to time? Maybe not financial bribes, but bribes of words. For example, if someone wrongs us but they apologize, and we forgive them for the “sin” that they committed against us, isn’t that a bribe? If they changed their action, that is one thing; they become a different person, a changed person. However, if it is just words, why are we trusting someone just on their word? 

The truth is that at times, we may not accept someone’s apology–depending on the severity of the crime. That is why it is so important for a judge not to take any kind of monetary bribe, since that could cloud their judgment. A judge has no idea if a person means what they are saying or not when they say that they will change their ways.  

G-d, on the other hand, does know. That is why when we show G-d that we intend to make a change in our life, He knows our true intention. If our goal is to better ourselves and we are not there yet, it doesn’t mean that we are not on the road to change. We are! G-d recognizes that. That is why it is not called a bribe—G-d sees the end of the road, while we may still be at the beginning of the road. 

As we live through this coronavirus outbreak, we have a choice to make. Do we look at the world through our eyes, at what is in front of us only, or do we look at the end of the road, through “G-dly eyes,” knowing that there is an end, even if we cannot see it? 

If we look through our worldly eyes only, we are prone to taking a bribe. We may be convinced one way or another, by some news media or whatever, to believe a certain way, which can cloud our judgment.   If however, we have faith in G-d that there is a plan for this world, we change ourselves – not the world – but ourselves, knowing that there is an end to the road. Things will get better. This is G-d’s world, after all. Then we will not be bribed by the media, etc. We will stay focused on doing our part to keep this world safe and healthy. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Intelligent Relationships

How do you know when to take a complaint seriously?

 

We often hear whispers – people talking about different issues – and we are not sure if they are truly unhappy about certain things. We may wonder, if it is true that people are concerned, why don’t they just say so clearly? We often find this reticence within a company whose employees may be disappointed with certain policies, or children who are saddened by something at home. Same with students in a classroom. 

 

How do we know when it is real and when it is not?

 

In this week’s Torah portion, we see how the Jews complained to each other in their homes about whether G-d would bring them into the promised land of Israel or not. Why did they murmur in their homes and not do so publicly?

 

From this we see that they really did believe that G-d would protect them. Perhaps they were nervous about how it would happen—would the war be successful? Would people die? Yet, they had faith. If they had lacked faith, they would have made a lot of noise and they would have done so publicly.

 

We see from this that when people complain in public, it means that they are passionate about what they are saying. It does not mean that they are right or wrong. However, it does mean that they are confident. They are willing to stand behind their words. On the other hand, when people walk around quietly and go from person to person and talk, that means that they may be frustrated and unhappy, but deep down they don’t really believe that things are bad or that things will not work out. 

 

A lesson that we can take from this is that we should make an effort to always remain positive and keep our belief strong that things will work out for the best.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

The Mask Debate

 

“If you have two Jews, you have three opinions,” is one of the most famous Jewish jokes. However, I take this as a compliment, since it shows that we are a thinking people. It is not only my opinion and your opinion that we are considering, but we even think about a third perspective. Perhaps a perspective that neither of us agree on, but hopefully we will come to an agreement.

 

When I think about the current situation regarding coronavirus, especially when I read the latest updates on the medical front and it says there is hope for developments at the end of 2021 (that’s right 2021 – not even 2020), I realize more and more every day that we are in this for the long haul. Although there are two sides to every argument, I hope there is at least the “third” perspective that we can all agree on, and that is that we want to end this pandemic as soon as humanly possible.

 

I am a rabbi after all, so I would like to share with you a lesson that we can learn from this week’s Torah portion. When discussing the subject of an “inadvertent murder,” we are taught that the victim can be avenged by the victim’s family. But in order to save the killer’s life, he/she can run to a “city of refuge,” and while in this city feel protected. Where no one can take revenge. Where they are safe. But when can this person leave the city of refuge? The answer is, once the “high priest” dies. (These laws, permission to take revenge, the ability to protect oneself in the city of refuge, and the condition to stay as long as the high priest was alive, applied only in the times of the Holy Temple.)

 

Not to get into the nuance of this law, but I do want to address one obvious question: What does the high priest have to do with this inadvertent murderer? Why does he go free when the priest dies? How are the two connected?

 

Aha! You see, every one of us is connected! There is no such a thing as one person sitting in the holiest chamber, in the holiest building in the world and only concerning himself with his own business. The fact that the high priest did not pray, every day, that a Jew should not err and kill someone – even unintentionally – automatically binds their lives together as one. I am here for you and you are here for me.  We are intertwined, whether we like it or not.  That is why, as long as the priest is alive, the killer must remain in the city of refuge. Once the priest dies, however, the killer is forgiven for his sin because the death of the priest, or his/her own death acts as atonement for the inadvertent death. To put it another way, the holiest Jew and the “killer-Jew” are one.

 

The lesson is clear: We cannot live life thinking only about what is best for us. We must realize, today more than ever, that our lives are intertwined.  To work our way through this pandemic, we, as a nation, must come together, united as one, and do something – the same thing, so that we can achieve success. You and I are interconnected. We are one.

 

What that thing is, well, that is where the debate lies. … Should we be in total lockdown? Or open in a green phase with masks and social distancing? Or should there be a total reopening? Or, perhaps there are even more opinions. That is not the point. 

 

It should not be a debate. The “thing” is to listen to the guidance of the government. If the government is saying that for now it is safe to be in a green phase abiding by CDC guidelines, masks, social distancing, hand washing, etc., then we should all be following those rules. The question whether the government is right or wrong, is beside the point. (That is like asking if the person is guilty of murder. That is not the discussion.)

 

Let us be united, and through unity, we will bring health and prosperity to the world.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

Coming to Terms with the Inexplicable

As thinking people, we tend to want to understand everything about our lives. When things happen to us that are inexplicable, we have a hard time wrapping our heads around it. Why, we ask ourselves. 

 

Perhaps, if we think about it, it is good for us not to understand everything and just accept that certain things are out of our control. When we know that we are not in command of every aspect of our lives, we have less anxiety.

 

This does not mean that we should not try to comprehend, but when things come up in our lives that are beyond our sway, we should just learn how to accept them.

 

We learn this concept from this week's Torah portion, Chukat. Chukat means laws that are inexplicable. Specifically, the portion talks about the laws of purity and impurity, and how to purify oneself (in the times of the Temple), with the red heifer. One detail that is relevant to our discussion is that if a person comes in contact with a corpse, the person becomes ritually impure. What is interesting to note is that even if only one finger touched the corpse, the whole person becomes impure, not only their finger.  When part of your body is affected, your whole body is affected.

 

Although the laws of purity and impurity are more complex than our understanding, the lesson is clear.

 

We cannot compartmentalize who we are as people. There is a part that understands and a part that doesn’t, but we are viewed as one whole person. When we learn to accept the things in our lives that we cannot understand, such as the will of G-d, it will have a positive effect on everything that we do. We will feel connected to G-d when we understand, and even when we don’t. This will help us have a happy disposition toward life.

 

Interestingly, the Torah wants us to understand the Torah and not to follow it blindly. Yet at the same time, there is an advantage to having just one little “finger-worth” of Torah that is unexplainable, that can teach us this positive lesson. This lesson teaches us how to always have a positive attitude in life.

 

In today's environment when there is still so much unknown, we yearn to understand, yet we cannot. We want to have some order and direction, yet we can’t find it. We just accept it as is. We are asked to accept that we don’t have the answers. We are asked to accept that it is OK to go shopping and to socialize, but at the same time, you must also wear a mask. Not all of it makes sense to a lot of people. However, we are being asked to just follow along. We should see ourselves as just a finger, and the world is the body, and keep our eye on the big picture.

Asking Questions or Making Statements?

Today everyone is an expert. You go to the doctor with an ailment, and you are already telling the doctor what to prescribe. Not only because you did your research on Google, but because the advertisements tell you to go to your doctor and tell them what you need.

 

It’s the same in many areas in our life. 

 

However, on deeper reflection we should question this behavior.

 

Researching so that you are educated, so that when you go to a professional for advice, you can understand what they are talking about, that is a good idea. But to think that we are the professional who has all the answers? Is that the right attitude?

 

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of the spies. This event had a major impact on the Jewish people. In short, this is the story of 12 leaders of the Jewish people who were sent by Moses to scout out the Land of Israel to see how best to capture the land. Not if to enter, but how to enter. Ten of the twelve came back and gave advice.  Instead of reporting on the how, they mixed in their own perspective on the if and the why and the consequences of entering Israel. They placed themselves into positions of authority.

 

The lesson that the Torah teaches us is that it is OK to raise a question. It is a whole different story when you think that you also know the answer.

 

When you visit your doctor it is important to let them know that something is hurting you – how can they know your problem if you don’t let them know where you are hurting? However, you also must allow them to figure out how to best treat it. Of course, you don’t only want to have a friendly doctor but a doctor who is a friend so that you are guaranteed to get the best treatment and feel confident that your needs are being met.

 

In the desert the Jews were in good hands. Moses was a leader who cared about each and every Jew. There was no question that he was looking out for their best interest. The moment the spies stepped over the line and started giving advice instead of just reporting, was the moment they tainted their report with their own opinions. No longer were they asking questions; now they were making statements. That is a big difference.

 

If we want to make change, ask good and hard questions. 

Finding Happiness in New Times

 This week we had a most beautiful and different kind of preschool graduation. These times call for innovation. On the surface, one may say that it is sad, that you cannot experience the life that we are used to. The children want to play with their friends. People want to see each other’s smiles – without the mask that hides them. Social distancing clearly is getting to people. As I watched and listened to the teachers read the graduates’ “report” of the closing of the year, what the children were missing the most was the time that they spend with their friends.

 

Putting a smile on our faces is important. A meaningful smile is even more important. Celebrating milestones in our lives, in a fun way, is even more important.

 

Wait a second. …. Why?

 

From a spiritual perspective, why celebrate? Shouldn’t we just focus on “holy” things? Why get caught up on mundane matters? What is the big deal about being secluded? Don’t ”holy” people do that? Lock themselves up in some building and close off the world and just pray to G-d day and night? Why the need to celebrate life?

 

This week’s Torah portion teaches us about the extra sacrifices on the holidays (vs. on Shabbat) and this was cause for celebration. After the destruction of the Temple, when offerings were no longer brought, the happiness continued because there is more to the holiday than just the offerings. The holiday itself is cause for celebration.

 

Times get tough. When the Temple was destroyed the Jews hoped and prayed that it would be rebuilt. We still pray, 2,000 years later, that it will be rebuilt! Yet, they had to look at the times and live in the present moment and ask, Are we happy only because of an offering or is it because of the holiday itself? They came to recognize two points—that they had to find the joy within the holiday itself, and that Judaism recognizes our bodily needs. We are not G-dly bodies, but human beings. We enjoy a good meal, a fun time, and a good celebration. That is why we celebrate holidays even after the Temple’s destruction.

 

Same applies to our times. Are things different today? Absolutely. Is that a reason not to celebrate? No.  We have to find alternate ways to make a meaningful graduation for little children, and for high school and college graduates.   

 

In our own family, we just celebrated our son Zalman’s Bar Mitzvah and we will be celebrating our son Mendel’s wedding. The celebrations are of different kinds of joy, but the happiness that will go along with the celebrations, will know no bounds.

Being Privileged

In these past two weeks America has been turned upside down. Some demonstrations have been peaceful, bringing our attention to the plight of the Blacks in our communities. (Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy  is a great book, if you want to educate yourself on this subject). Other demonstrations have turned into riots where people have taken a cause and sadly shamed themselves and our country.

 

People are asking: Are the police to blame? Is White Privilege the problem? Is it because Black lives don’t matter? Heaven forbid, I hope not!

 

Then what is the problem? More importantly, how do we find a solution? Clearly, burning and looting other peoples’ property is definitely not the answer.

 

Let us look into the Torah for some guidance. Specifically, this week’s Torah portion. 

 

The story starts out telling us how the family of Kehot carried the ark that the Torah and the tablets were held in, and for this merit they are always mentioned first. Yes, they had privileges. And with those privileges came responsibilities.

 

This did not make them better. What it did make them is responsible for being keepers of the Torah. They had to learn the Torah so that they knew what it said inside. They had to teach it and guard it. However, and this is very important, in order for them to do so successfully, they had to do so with humility! If they had allowed this honor to get to their heads and become egotistical, then they would stop teaching and sharing and start preaching. They would be a friend no longer but a person who looks down at their neighbors and no longer an example unto others.

 

The Torah is teaching us that the teacher and the student need to have a dose of humility, to be able to teach as well as to be able to learn. This way the teacher becomes a student and the student becomes a teacher. There is a relationship between the two.  It no longer matters who is who. 

 

There is a story about a mother whose son wanted to marry a women of color, and although the mother liked the girl, she was uncomfortable with the color of her skin, and wasn’t sure how to deal with her emotions. Should she just accept her son’s desire to marry whomever he wished to? Or should she let her bias be known? She turned to the Lubavitch Rebbe for advice. The Rebbe responded, “Do you know why the Torah is written with black letters on white parchment?” he rhetorically asked her, and he right away gave the answer: “Because G-d is colorblind.” With that one-line, all her doubts were removed.    

 

We too, should be colorblind; we should look at a person based on their actions. Get to know people. Become their friends. The better we get to know someone, the more we can learn from them and them from us. 

 

Pointing fingers will do no one good, unless we are pointing at ourselves.

 

The Kehot family said yes, we are privileged to carry the ark, therefore we are going to share its teachings with others. If we hold it for ourselves, then what does the privilege mean?

 

If we want to change the world, let us start by making a new friend

Are you a Red, Yellow, or Green Jew?

 These days we sit and wait week after week thinking, when are we going to move from red to yellow and eventually from yellow to green? We know that these transitions are not dependent on us, but on factors that are out of our control. Yet, we hope that the situation will improve so that our lives can return to some normalcy.

 

This got me thinking—If I had to grade myself, what color would I give myself? Not in regards to corona, but in regards to Judaism. Am I a red, yellow, or green Jew? 

 

The Red Jew: You stop in your tracks. You are a Jew because you are a member of the tribe. You are the “chosen nation.” You might not be too sure what that really means but you know that if someone calls you a Jew, you know that they are referring to you.

 

The Yellow Jew: You stop and take pause. You think about it once in a while. You might light the Shabbat candles, make Kiddush Friday night, or lay the Tefillin. You have a charity box in your home and pay synagogue dues. You have a mezuzah on your front door. You proudly identify yourself as a Jew wherever you go!

 

The Green Jew: You are a Jew-on-the-go. You are always looking for a mitzvah to do. On an ongoing, daily basis you are thinking, planning, talking, and acting like a Jew. Perhaps you are even an activist on behalf of Israel or some other Jewish cause. One thing is for sure, when it comes to Judaism, you are always on the go!

 

As we prepare for the Shavuot holiday, let’s all be in the Green Zone, even if only spiritually.

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