Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

To survive and to thrive

Many folks are intrigued by an unsolved murder case. Not only do we want justice to be served on behalf of the victim, but we want to know how it was possible for the murderer to get away with it in the first place. The Torah deals with complications in murder cases, including questions that can ensue if a victim is found between two locales and it is unclear in which court the trial should be held.


It is interesting to note that in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, when Joseph’s brothers go home to tell Jacob that Joseph is still alive, Joseph sends wagons along to carry their load. The word “wagon” in Hebrew, agalah, has a double meaning. Not only does it mean “wagon,” it also means “calf.” Joseph’s clever use of the double meaning was a hint to his father that he still recalled the last learning session he had with him, which was about an unsolved murder, the court’s findings, and the responsibility to provide a calf offering. 


When Jacob saw the agalah he instantly understood its double meaning and he said that Joseph had bested him. It is one thing to be impressed that Joseph remembered the topic of their last study session, but why did Jacob say he felt that Joseph was better than he?


To appreciate Jacob’s comment, we need to take a step back and recap the ongoing argument between Joseph and his brothers. The brothers felt that in order to stay true to Judaism, it was safer to do so in the comforts of one’s own environs. Don’t leave your own safety zone, your own community. Don’t venture outside, lest you get lost in the large world out there since they don’t have the tools to overcome its temptations. Joseph argued that when one is connected to G-d, one should not be worried about the temptations of the world, but just the opposite, one should utilize the world and benefit from the world for the purpose of serving G-d.


Jacob, in his heart, knew that Joseph was right, although he recognized that it is the more difficult path. Jacob’s gift to Joseph, the coat of many colors—representing the colors of the world—hinted to his agreement to this approach.


When Joseph sent the wagons, he sent a double message. The lesson of the unsolved murder was not only about finding out who the killer was, but about teaching the community that they had a responsibility to step in and ask how this could happen in their midst. He taught, “We have to be on top of our game. This is a sign that something is wrong with our community, we did not protect the victim. As a whole, each and every member of our community needs to know that it is not enough to live in the community, but they have to do more. If someone is in need, you cannot look the other way; each and every one of us is responsible for providing protection. This innocent victim was not provided this simple necessity.”


Joseph was sending his father a message: “Not only did I survive in Egypt as a Jew, but I am thriving here as well. I am going to look out for you and the family. I understand that my role is not just to make do, but to do my best.”


Jacob admits that Joseph bested him. During their years of separation, all that he was able to do was survive. The pain of their separation was too great to handle, but he knew that it was not enough to survive; in truth, he had to thrive.


This is the valuable lesson that Joseph teaches all of us—that even under the most challenging circumstances, we must do our best to thrive.


Truthfully, this is easier said than done. Not all of us are Josephs, but to put in the effort to try is a worthwhile endeavor.


When to start celebrating

There is a famous saying, “It ain't over till the fat lady sings.” Although this applies to the opera, sports competitions, and the like, many people apply this way of thinking to other areas in their lives, believing that if they celebrate too early, they will jinx the outcome. Yet, it is not wrong to question this idiom. Is it true? Can we celebrate at the first moment that we see the lights of hope shining? When we see blessings in our life start to unfold, can we start to sing praises or should we wait until everything falls in place, exactly as we want it to?

When it comes to the holiday of Chanukah, we recite a special prayer that mentions the miracle of the small band of Maccabees winning the war, and the aftermath of the Jews cleaning up the temple and kindling the lights, along with our celebration that followed in the Chanukah celebration by lighting the menorah.

Taking a closer look at the prayer, we find something interesting. When it mentions kindling the menorah in the story part of the prayer, it says that the Maccabees lit the candles in the holy courtyards (in the plural), yet there was only one menorah and it stood in the interior of the temple, not in its courtyard, let alone in the courtyards, so what is the prayer referring to?

There are multiple ways of explaining this statement. We can say that they moved the menorah to the courtyard for all to see the lights being kindled—even though they didn’t know that there would be a miracle—simply to celebrate after such a long time that the menorah lay dormant. This is a nice explanation, but something tells me that the Maccabees had a little bit of fanaticism in them and would not change the law just for this reason alone. There are other explanations, but none truly satisfy.

Therefore, we must conclude that they kindled the menorah in its usual location in the inner chambers. However, once the oil continued burning the second day they immediately noticed a miracle in the making and their joy and enthusiasm knew no bounds! The Maccabees and the Jewish leaders jumped into action and placed candles and candelabras everywhere, in every holy courtyard and beyond. Once eight days passed and it become clear that the miracle had lasted for eight days, the holiday was established for an eight-day period. But the celebration did not wait until the eight days passed; the celebration started at the first moment.

The lesson for us this Chanukah to put aside waiting for the fat lady to sing. Rather, we should ask, if not now, then when? At the first opportunity that we have to give thanks, we should. If we have a reason to celebrate, we should. There is no reason to wait until times are better, if today is already good.

Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom!


Looking forward to retirement

As this year draws to an end, one thing that does not look so bright is the stock market. And people who are looking forward to retiring, and those already retired, are asking the question, is it so wrong to look forward to retirement? And now with the market the way it is, they don’t have the confidence to do so. Is this a good or bad thing?


On the one hand, we have to feel bad because the market is down, and we want the potential retiree to have a break from work. However, perhaps there is an upside as well.


In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, we read about how Jacob wants to relax. He is aging; he has had a long and challenging life. He had to deal with Esau, with Lavan as a boss, with the death of his beloved wife, the obduction of Dina, and now he has a whole family to raise. He just wants to live in peace and tranquility. Instead, his sons sell his favorite son, Joseph, into slavery and Jacob believes that Joseph is dead. This is not a way to live out your life. In the end, he does have the “best years of his life” ahead of him, but that is yet to come.


Why is he deprived of his retirement at this point, and only is rewarded with it seventeen years later? Is he too young for retirement?


Our sages say that it is not so simple. It is true that Jacob could have laid back at this point in his life and relaxed, and even benefited from all of his hard work up until this point – including all the trials and tribulations that he went through. The reward would have been well earned. However, the rewards of retirement would have been in accordance to his challenges. Yet, this one last excruciating challenge of “losing” Joseph, the pain and suffering that he went through during those seventeen years of separation, prepared him for, and propelled him to, greater heights, heights that he was unable to reach before the challenge. Only because of this great and difficult time, that his children put him through, was he sent into this deep soul-searching journey, so that when he was eventually reunited with his son, he was able to reach a level of happiness, and true inner joy that he was unable to achieve before.


In our own lives, we don’t understand the market forces, nor do we understand the life challenges or experiences that we face. The whys of life are beyond our understanding. What we do have at our disposal is how we respond to them. Instead of kvetching, we can and should look at our date of retirement as an opportunity for growth. Just as Jacob was able to grow during his time of waiting, so can we grow as well. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take seventeen years and that it is not as painful.


Shabbat Shalom

How to influence others

Anyone who is in sales or in a leadership position knows that one of the most challenging things in their job is how to influence people. In truth, if we think about it, most of society does need to influence others day in and day out, even if that is not their occupation. A parent tries to convince their child to do a certain chore. A friend might need a favor, or a co-worker a helping hand. A teacher will discipline a student in a loving way, and the list goes on. 


We are not always trying to find a way to coerce someone into our way of thinking – this is not a skill set that we are looking to hone, but we are naturally doing our best to just get along. And hopefully, this is not about manipulation of another person's mind.  


However, what happens when we meet a foe, a person who really rubs us the wrong way, a true challenge. How do we deal with them? 


In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we read the story about when Esau is about to meet Jacob, and Jacob learns that Esau is coming with an army of four hundred men. This frightens Jacob, as he has only a small family. How will he stand up and protect himself? 


The Torah tells us that he takes three steps to prepare for this encounter, but first he must perform a crucial task. He must look into his own soul and see of what he is made. He must ask himself, who is Jacob? “Why does Esau want to attack me? Do I deserve to be attacked? Of course, I know the story that happened in the past – but has anything changed? Can I show Esau that things have changed?” Once Jacob starts searching his own soul – understanding who he has become over the last thirty-four years since they saw each other, he now knows how to prepare for the encounter—with the three steps.


First step: He sends gifts to his brother. The gifts show Esau that he doesn’t hate him. True, they have gone their own ways, but that doesn’t mean that they hate each other. Two paths for two people, yet they still have more in common than they have that divides them.


Second step: He prays to G-d that his family be spared any hostilities between Esau or Esau’s men and his family. He prays that their meeting will be a peaceful one. 


Third step: He prepares for war. G-d forbid that Esau decides to attack, Jacob hopes that his family will be spared. The Torah tells us that he divides his family and his possessions in half. He puts his family in one area, and all his animals and his material possessions in another area, thinking that if Esau really wants to fight, he might see the option of taking the spoils of war. Hopefully that would satisfy him, and he would leave Jacob’s family alone. 


The story concludes peacefully, with Jacob and Esau kissing each other, and all goes well.  


The lesson for us is profound. One of the biggest hindrances in getting along with other people, let alone influencing them, is that we don’t know who we, ourselves, are. Once we take stock of ourselves, it makes our job that much easier.  

4.0 - So What?


A student can go through four years of college and earn a 4.0 GPA and be very proud of themselves – as they should be. But then the question arises: Now what? What did this great GPA earn them? The same is true for the lives of more mature people. You can work toward a goal and you may think you have reached the zenith of your career, but then you ask, now what.

The questions that we should ask ourselves are twofold: did we accomplish what we set out to do? And is there more to accomplish?

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the greatest feat of all – when G-d created the world. Toward the end of the sixth day of creation, when G-d was about to “retire” for Shabbat, the Torah says that G-d finished creating the heavens and earth, and G-d looked back to see everything that He had created. He blessed the seventh day and made it holy, since he rested from all the work that He had done in creating the world.

Seemingly, when we read the text, G-d looks satisfied with His handiwork. However, upon closer examination of the words, you might notice that there is an additional word(s) at the end,” to do” (in Hebrew: la’asot). One second—didn’t G-d just say how satisfied He was with His accomplishment? Everything looked so perfect! After He finished his creation, He said, “It was good.” So why did G-d add the word la’asot – “to do?” What now?

Understandably, reason will tell us that G-d could have created the world in any way he wanted. It could
have been complete to perfection. Yet G-d chose not to. He wanted the world to be imperfect. G-d wants us – no matter how insignificant we may look compared to Him – to be His partners in finishing the job – L’taken Olem, better known as doing the job of Tikun Olam.

Why is that? Why couldn’t G-d just do it by Himself?

On a very basic level, a teacher can go and do the job themselves, but then the student will never learn. A student can have the best GPA, but if they don’t go into their desired field and practice—meaning do the actual work—they will never have the opportunity to implement what they have learned. But if they truly partner with their teacher and use the material that they have learned, they can, even better, enhance the field by innovating.

G-d wants us to innovate, to make this world “our world,” to make this world a better place by taking ownership. When we look at this world as our world, we are not doing Mitzvot because G-d told us to, but because we want to. It is our home that we are beautifying, it is our life that we are enhancing. It is our world that we are making into a better place to live.

When we wake up in the morning and we ask ourselves, Mah La’asot, what is my job to do today, there is only one answer: make this world – my world -- a better place.

A Little Vulnerable 

A good place to go to free your mind of all worries is nearby water, whether the beach or the waterfront. Some people feel even better if they can go for a boat ride. The image of a person in a rowboat sitting quietly in contemplation comes to mind. For the more active person, being on a surfboard, going into the water in a carefree environment gives them a sense of freedom and tranquility. I assume that this is why these images are popular for people to hang on their walls as art to help calm the mind. 

What is it about being on the water that brings people peace? While on the water you can feel so vulnerable. You shake from right to left; every wave causes your whole body to move and perhaps to even tip over. Why do people find it so thrilling to be placed in a position that is susceptible to regret? 

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tova, we read blessings and warnings made to the Jewish people. In what may seem like a harsh curse, G-d warns the Jewish people that if they don’t follow the commandments they will return to Egypt in boats, and will ask to be sold as slaves, since they would rather be slaves than be in such dire circumstances on those crowded and uncomfortable boats.  

The commentators ask: Why does the journey back to Egypt need to be on boats? Why can’t they go by foot? 

Slaves can be led in any fashion. Boats are not the only mode of transportation. In addition, when the Jews left Egypt, they went by foot as well! 

From here we deduce that it is within the “boat” that we will find our answer—that this is not really a curse, but a blessing in disguise. 

By putting the Jews on a boat, forcing the Jew to feel vulnerable, they make them much more aware of all of their senses. Their physical and their spiritual senses as well. 

Just as we enjoy a nice, pleasant boat ride, the Jews on this boat held as “captive” in a very compromised position will think long and hard not only about their physical discomfort but about their spiritual decay as well. 

This will awaken within them a call to be redeemed. They will say that anything is better than this. This is what Teshuva is all about. 

Sitting by the sea or on a boat today gives us that same sense of allowing us to feel every fiber of our being.  We become in tune to who we are and what we are made of. A good surfer is not only in great shape, but they also “know” their body well.  

As we get ready to surf through the coming year, let us become sensitive to every fiber of our soul. Let us come to know it well, so that we can become the best surfer.  

Opposing Forces

How do we deal with differing thoughts that enter our mind simultaneously, especially when they are opposing thoughts? While they are all important, they may collide one with the other.


A person might be looking for a thrill while at the same time they know that they should be responsible. Do they take the risk and have fun, or should they be more responsible? How do we make that decision? There is a process.


This process of going from thought to speech and then to action can be complicated for some people to work through. Can we use this process to navigate through life?


This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tietze, gives us two thoughts, and commands us to always remember them. These thoughts seem to be opposing as well. One thought is positive, to honor Shabbat. The second thought is more somber, to constantly remember how Amalek (the famous anti-Semite) wanted and wants to destroy us. Now, if we are told to always keep two positive thoughts in mind, that is easy to do, even if they are not the same thought. Since they are on the same wavelength, we can keep both side by side. However, thinking of opposite thoughts, one good and one bad, one that puts us in a good mood, while the other puts us on high alert, doesn’t jibe well. How do we deal with this? This can put us in a swing mood. One second we are happy, the next we are on high alert.


How do we balance our life?


Think about wine and vinegar. On the one hand they are opposites. Wine is an enjoyable drink while vinegar is bitter. Yet they both come from the vine. The difference is how they are used. When vinegar is added to our food, the flavor enhances our food and makes it very delightful. Wine, when we drink it responsibly, is enjoyable as well. Life is a matter of perspective.


We can find good in everything that we see and experience. It all depends on our attitude. Like vinegar, the bitter thought, Amalek hated the Jews because he saw our good qualities. But we can shift our attitude—instead of us allowing that thought to unhinge us, we have to look at the deeper meaning of what the Torah is telling us, and then we will see that the message of Shabbat and the message of Amalek are one and the same.


Just like wine and vinegar both come from the same source—although they cannot be used the same way—so it is with Shabbat and the anti-Semite. However, it doesn’t mean that we should not be looking a little deeper to find the connecting dots.


We can take our thoughts, bring them to words, and then to action to make this world a brighter place. As long as we are connected to the brightness of this world, we can always strive for better.


Wishing you a Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom.





Does my mitzvah accomplish anything?

When you think about it, one can ask the question, why do I need to do a mitzvah to feel connected to G-d? If you just look around you, you will see living testimony of the existence of G-d in the world, from the heavens above to the earth below. Everywhere you look you can see G-d, as long as you are willing to see. Why do I also need to add my mitzvot into the mix? 


In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we learn that we rely upon two witnesses to establish the facts on the ground. However, there are two kinds of witnesses. There are those who just tell us the facts that happened but they don’t create anything new. For example, if two people have a business transaction, like borrowing money from each other, the witnesses do not create the reality, they only testify to the facts of what happened. The reality was created between the two people. Yet, there is another type of testimony in Judaism with witnesses of a different nature. Here, the witnesses don’t only watch something happen so that later it cannot be disputed, but if they are not there, the act is meaningless. An example of that is marriage. If a man gives a woman a ring with the intention of marriage but there were no witnesses present, the marriage is questionable, even if the bride and groom admit to the action. In other words, in such a case, not only do the witnesses testify to the facts, but they also create the reality! 


That is why it is not enough for us to see the wonders of the world and see how they testify to the existence of G-d, as that is the obvious “witness.” We want to create the facts that are not as obvious, we want to bring a greater level of G-dliness into this world, one that doesn’t exist just by looking at the world around us, but by uncovering what is deep inside the world. We do this by performing a mitzvah. 


Just as marriage brings two people together, revealing the deeper dimension of their souls closer to each other—and this is done not just by being with each other but with witnesses under the chupah—so  too, when it comes to our connection with G-d that is created with mitzvot, when we perform a mitzvah, we are not just going through the motions, we are testifying to our connection to G-d, we are revealing a deep desire to become closer to G-d in a way in which we were unable to prior to fulfilling this particular mitzvah. 


As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, the marriage of the Jewish people and G-d, we should find our own set of witnesses to testify to our connection to the Creator so that when the High Holidays come around, our relationship should be a healthy one. 

Why all the Appeals?

In the days leading up to the High Holidays and during the High Holidays season, it is customary to give more charity than usual. The reason for this is that since these 40 days—the month of Elul and the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur—are the Days of Judgment when we are being judged, we want to …?

What are we trying to do? Can we buy off G-d to be kinder to us on our Day of Judgment? By giving a few dollars to charity, all our mistakes during the year will just be washed away? Is Judaism that superficial?

For starters, in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we learn not only about the mitzvah of charity, but more than that, we learn about the attitude we should have toward the mitzvah: If you are asked to help a person in need, don’t hold back. Open your hand and give!

People can take this mitzvah too far and give more than they can afford, so the rabbis established a rule, that we should not give more than 10%. But if our hearts really desire, we can give as much as 20% of our annual income per year.

Yet, when it comes to this time of year, the time of judgment, even these restrictions ease and one can give more charity. What are we trying to accomplish?

When it comes to the Day of Judgment, there are two approaches that we can take.

 A - G-d is the Judge, but He is a compassionate judge, a judge filled with kindness. Therefore, the more kindness and compassion that we show to others, the more we receive in return.

 B - G-d looks into our virtual bank/mitzvah account, and the more mitzvot we have there, the better results we will have.

The first approach is focused on revealing within G-d a feeling toward us, while the second is awakening within us a desire to come closer to G-d.

After all, isn’t this the whole idea of the High Holidays?

So back to our original question of, “we want to…what?” The more we give of our hard-earned income, the more we can accomplish both of our goals.

As we celebrate Rosh Chodesh this weekend, welcoming the new month of Elul, going in to the 40 days of repentance and preparation for the High Holiday season, may we accomplish what we set out do, with flying colors.

Can We Bribe G-d?

 There is a well-known saying: “If you love chicken that much, then don’t eat it.” In other words, you eat it because it’s not the chicken that you love, it is yourself that you love, and you love the
way chicken tastes. However, if you actually loved the chicken itself, you would not eat it. Obviously, this idea makes our lives very complicated. For example, if I say I love you, does that
mean that I love myself and I am selfish and I only love you to satisfy my own needs? Can I love another person without any ulterior motives? Is it even possible to say “love you” without the
“I?” Are we splitting hairs here?

The reason we should be thinking about this question is because of this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, where Moses tells us that we cannot bribe G-d with our good deeds. But then the Midrash
tells us not to worry, because G-d Himself makes an exception and does take bribes in one case, and one case only, when it comes to Teshuva, repentance.

Are we splitting hairs here?

Well, what is the process of repentance? There is the person who sinned and there is the sin itself. Within the world of sins, there are sins that can be rectified (example: an object that was
stolen can be returned), and there are sins that cannot be easily fixed (example: the stolen object was destroyed and can no longer be returned).

When we talk about the idea of “repentance,” are we referring to the person who sinned and do we mean to say that they have to regret their action, while their sin can continue to exist? Or do
we need to make sure that the sin itself is eradicated from the world as well?

To clarify the question at hand, what if a person regrets their actions but doesn’t do anything about it when they could? For example, they stole goods and had the opportunity to return
them, but they don’t. Is their regret meaningless, or just incomplete? How about if what they stole is impossible to return since it was destroyed; does that mean that they have no chance
for repentance ever, since it is impossible to rectify their action by returning the stolen goods as they no longer exist? If so, what is their path to return?

This is what the Midrash means when it says that G-d takes bribes. G-d knows what is in one’s heart. Let’s put the technicalities on the side. Sure, if we can get to the finish line in our effort to repent, we should. However, if we don’t, it doesn’t mean that we have not started. G-d who knows what is going on in our hearts and minds, is bribed by those thoughts and feelings of
regret and repentance. So even if we didn’t finish the process, the fact that we started is so meaningful to Him, that he changes His mind and forgives us in advance!

Just like a bribe can change a judge’s mind, so too, can our Teshuva. Even just starting the process can change G-d’s perspective about us, and He will look favorably toward us.

Don’t bribe G-d with your deeds. Bribe Him with your heart.

Best Practices for Effective Learning


Many adults have limited time to learn new information, yet our desire to learn is there. We are thirsty for new ideas, concepts, and even skills. So, it is important for us to develop effective strategies and methods to accumulate this knowledge in a timely fashion.


Speed, of course, is not the only issue. We want to retain the information we have learned and internalize what we have learned so that it becomes easy to recall at a later date.


How do we do so?


In this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, we read the famous portion of Ve’ahavta, the paragraph following the Shema prayer. In that paragraph, there is a verse that says: V’shinantam L’vanecha, V’tibarta Bam, teach your children so that they will be fluent in their learning. The question that jumps out at us is: Logically, we should be told to learn for ourselves first before we are commanded to teach our children. After all, how can we teach if we don’t know anything ourselves yet? Common sense tells us, buckle up and learn so that you can teach your children. Yet that is not what the Torah tells us to do. It says just the opposite: Teach your children so that you will be fluent. Or to rephrase the verse—By teaching your children, you will become fluent in the Torah.


Aha. So here lies the secret to effective learning:


1 – Teach others so that you must learn for yourself first. Not only don’t you want to feel uneducated when you are explaining an idea to another person, you want to sound well versed on the subject. Well, there is only one way to be educated—learn the subject well. When you have to teach, you not only prepare better, you come to know the subject matter better. As the saying goes, a teacher learns more from their students than the student learns from the teacher.


2 – Learn like a child learns. When a child learns, they don’t come to the subject with preconceived conclusions. Their minds are open to listen and to learn. They are like a sponge that takes everything in. If adults can learn with open minds, not only are they more willing to learn more ideas, they are able to remember better as well, as they are not filtering the ideas first.


3 – Have a healthy dose of humility. Children don’t think they know everything. They come to the classroom humbly, ready to learn. When they ask questions, it is not for the purpose of proving themselves right as much as for finding out what is the truth, what is the right answer. They don’t need to be right; they want to know what IS right.


When we, as adults, approach learning as children do, our conversations and debates on a subject will be more civil, profound, and meaningful. We will remember the subject matter better, and it will not be about who is right but about what is right. If we are reading a book with an open mind, we will be able to retain the information better when we read as a child reads, with humility and a willingness to learn something new, knowing that there is something here that we do not know.


When we continue to study this way, we will be effective learners and teachers. 


Can a Blessing be Too Big?

This past week, the lottery reached the third-highest amount in history, more than 1.3-billion-dollars in jackpot. Winning that amount of money in one lump sum, or even in installments, is a huge amount of money. True, it is not an infinite amount of money, but in one’s mind, it is close.


This makes us wonder: G-d promised the Jews many times that we will number as many as the grains of sand on the seashores, or the stars in the sky … a blessing that refers to an infinite growth of the Jewish people. These blessings were given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who at the time were just a few families, but receiving these blessings from G-d meant that the Jews will grow many times over.


Yet, in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, Moses blessed the Jewish people so that they would grow a thousand times in number. The Jews assumed that Moses was extending G-d’s blessing to them and were frustrated as it sounded like a limitation rather than an expansion. G-d blessed them so that they would be as numerous as the sands on the seashore and now they are only going to be a thousand times their size? To them this seemed like a reduction to the blessing—only a thousand times in size—not an enlargement to the blessing, many thousand times.


Let’s take a closer look at G-d’s and Moses’s blessings. If you really want to get technical, you could figure out how many people could fit on the seashores of the world. You could calculate how many miles of beach there is, and how much space each person needs to stand, and you could come up with a number—a very large number. And when it comes to the stars, the number will be even larger. Astronomers put the overall number in the vicinity of 200 sextillion stars. A very large number, but a number, nevertheless.


On the other hand, Moses looked at the Jewish nation of about two million Jews, and blessed them to be a thousand-fold, i.e., that they should grow to be a nation of two billion people. Although this is an astronomical number, the Jews felt that this was a limitation to their growth. How can one compare two billion to two hundred sextillion?


Moses, the ever-practical leader, answers the Jews in a two-fold answer. A- He is not G-d, he is just like them, a human being, and when a human internalizes a blessing from G-d, they have to bring it down to the human level and make it relevant to their lives, and then B- figure out a way to lift the blessing up to a higher level, to the original intent of what G-d had in mind.


Moses was, and is, our teacher and guide. He represented the quintessential level of “understating” (bina). However, as it is explained in Kabbalah, higher than that is the level of “wisdom” (chachma). Moses is teaching us to not just look at the number of Jews, at our quantity, but to look at our quality.


G-d’s blessing to the Jewish people—that we should be like the stars and the sand—is about more than just numbers. It is about contributing to society. It is about making an impact in the world around us.


Every single day when we wake up in the morning, we should remind ourselves that true, we may be small in numbers, but we are not small in our impact. What am I doing today to make my mark?

Compartmentalizing Our Lives

In many ways, being able to compartmentalize the different aspects of our lives is very helpful. Going to work and focusing on our job because we have left our personal issues at the office door, can be quite advantageous. Even more important is the reverse—when we come home from work and leave our work issues at the office, that brings us peace of mind at home.  And in today’s connected world it is a bit more challenging, although there are many apps and techniques to help us do so.


However, we can challenge this way of thinking, because in many aspects of our lives, separating one aspect from the next can actually be detrimental to our wellbeing and to our families. For example, we should not ignore our health during the day and say that we will take care of it over the weekend, or ignore our children’s events at school because we are too busy at work, etc. We must learn how to integrate these facets of our life into our day-to-day living.


In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the Jews are about to enter the land of Israel. They are at the brink of fulfilling their dream of the last thirty-eight years—and they hit a stumbling block. They start to worship idols, Baal-Peor. What happened? How is it possible that from such a spiritual high they can fall so low?


One answer can be found in the Haftarah of this week.  It says there was a disconnect between the Jews’ faith in G-d and their commitment to the Mitzvot, and their connection to the physical world: They compartmentalized their lives to the extreme.


One of the fundamental principles of Judaism is that we cannot and should not separate our spiritual and mundane lives from each other. Not only are they connected, but they are also intertwined with each other, to the point that in essence, they are one and the same.


By way of analogy, imagine a couple living together who doesn’t share the same bottle of milk. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. Such a compartmentalized life is asking for disaster. Not only should the milk be shared, but it should not be measured either. Every aspect of the couple’s life is a shared life. In a happy marriage, there is no splitting between the spiritual and the physical. Between his and hers. Everything belongs to everyone. 


In our relationship with G-d, we too, should view our daily lives the same way. Our connection to G-d should not stop after we finish our morning prayers and then we start off “our” day, and then we reconnect with G-d once we are ready to do so later in the day. Every moment of the day should be braided, connected, and holy.


When we are in this kind of zone, we don’t mess up, and our faith and trust in G-d is rock solid.

Moving On

One of the most difficult things to do in life after the passing of a loved one is to move on. We want the person to stay with us forever. We miss their teachings, their talents, their wisdom and advice, and specifically, the unique contribution that they brought to the family and to our lives. Yet, we know that life continues on, so how do we cope? Do we find a new father or mother and adopt them as our new parent? If it is a leader who has passed away, do we just replace them with a new leader and make believe nothing happened? 


In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we learn of the passing of Aaron, the High Priest.  While Aaron was alive, the Jews were sheltered with the clouds of glory that served both to protect them and as a sign of honor and respect. 


Then what happened after Aaron died? Did the clouds return? 


On the one hand, it seems like they didn’t since we don’t see the Jews complaining, as they did when the source of water stopped after Miriam’s death, asking for the return of the clouds. On the other hand, they needed the clouds to protect them and guide them as they continued to travel through the desert. 


Our sages teach us that some clouds returned in honor of Moses, but not all. Those that were necessary returned. But those that were only there in Aaron’s honor, did not return. 

The reason given for this was so that the Jews could learn how to live without the benefits of their beloved Aaron after he passed on, as they would come to learn after the passing of Moses as well.  


As much as the Jews loved Aaron - the Torah tells us that the whole community mourned him for thirty days! -  it was not easy to just move on and replace him. Moses was not replaceable. No one is replaceable. Nor should we try to replace someone we love. However, it is important to learn how to live our lives after someone is no longer physically with us. 


This past week marked twenty-eight years since the Rebbe’s passing. The Rebbe left us many teachings and lessons, and guidance for our lives. At the same time, we should know that just as Moses hoped that the Jewish people would thrive after his passing, the Rebbe hoped for the same. 


Our loved ones want the same from us—to learn how to take the lessons that we have learned and continue to grow and thrive, even after their passing. 

Finding Differences in our Sameness

Is there more sameness to our differences or are there more differences in our sameness? There is no question that every person has their own unique personality, and uses their own talents to contribute to society. On the other hand, the question arises, when we do the same thing day in and day out, how do we make our mark in this world?


Some career roles clearly give us the opportunity to make our mark more than others. For example, if someone works on an assembly line and they do the exact same thing over and over again, even if someone else steps in and takes over, nothing will change. In such a case, is sameness the same, or can we find some differences in the sameness?


In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, we read about the twelve tribe leaders who brought their dedication offerings to the Tabernacle, one each day for twelve days. Each one brought the same exact set of offerings. The fact that they brought the same thing is not so amusing; what is interesting to us is that the Torah repeats verbatim what each one brought as if it were something new, when in reality it was the same exact thing as the day before. This happened for twelve days straight. Why does the Torah do so, especially when the Torah is usually short on its words? Why the repetition?


Each of the offerings presented had significance to it. For example, they each brought a silver bowl. By attributing a standardized number to each letter, a silver bowl, Ka’arat Kesef in Hebrew, has the numerical value of 530. In addition, if you change around the letters of Ka’arat, it reads Akeret, meaning ruler. This is a reference to Adam, the first person who lived in this world and ruled this world. Perhaps not coincidentally, he lived for 530 years. Each of the items that the tribe leaders brought have similar significance. 


However, not every person—and definitely none of the twelve tribe leaders—could relate to each of the years of Adam’s life equally. So, although each of them related to the general idea, and therefore brought the same gift, they didn’t have the same intention when they did so. One tribe leader might have related to one period of Adam’s life, while a second tribe leader, to another.


The same is true in our own lives as well. Each and every one of us has unique qualities. Even if we are doing the exact same thing, we are still thinking different thoughts, doing things our own way, putting in our own effort, etc. So, although from the outside it might look the same, each and every one of us has something different to gift to the world.


That is why the Torah goes to such lengths to repeat the same exact thing over and over again—to teach us that each and every one of us is unique. It doesn’t matter if it looks like we are doing the same thing as someone else or if we are doing something different. At the end of the day, we are always investing our own flavor.

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