Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Help Fight Anti-Semitism

With anti-Semitism on the rise yet again, we as Jews must take pause and think what it means to us and how should we respond. I don’t claim to have the answer to this age-old question, so let us explore it together.


One thing we do know from experience, is that hiding doesn’t work because the anti-Semite will find us and the Jew within us will not allow us to hide. Better let us understand who we are and why it bothers us to begin with.


Naturally, we want to be close to G-d. After all, that is what being a Jew is all about. Yet there are times when we may be far away—metaphorically, physically, or spiritually. Sometimes this is by choice, and other times it is because we are simply lost. It can occur because we are not educated or because we feel alienated. Sometimes you feel close, yet so far—for example, you may be sitting in a synagogue and still not understand a word of the prayers (even the English) and wonder to yourself: Do I belong? Yet, you are still there. This inner conflict of wanting to be close yet not necessary feeling close, is very common.


Here are three progressive steps that can help us feel more connected.


1 – You have to have a desire to come close. If you don’t have the “drive” to start with, then there is nothing to do. Passover, the first holiday that the Jews celebrated as a Jewish nation, commemorates when the Jews ran out of Egypt. This idea of rushing out, yet embracing G-d, still applies to us today. Take the leap.


2 – We have to take the initiative to make it happen. No one can force us to have a relationship with G-d. Yes, a teacher can teach, a parent can take a child to school. Ultimately, though, the initiative has to come from within each and every person’s soul. Only you can make it happen.


3 - G-d rewards us by sharing with us the Torah and his Mitzvot so that we have meaningful ways to connect with Him. G-d will help you.


One might think: Nature is nature, but what happens if I was nurtured another way? I don’t have it “in me?” I am not that young any longer. This week’s Torah portion teaches us a unique Mitzvah with regard to Passover.


If someone missed the opportunity to participate in the rituals of the Passover lamb, a month later they are still able to do so. You are given a second chance.


Here we have a profound lesson: Although someone might have missed the first Passover, because they were far away, metaphorically, physically, spiritually, or simply by accident, there is always another chance to come closer to G-d. All that one has to do is – Just do it.


So, do you want to fight anti-Semitism? Wear your Jewish pride publicly. Post on social media a photo of a Mitzvah that you are performing--your Friday night table beautifully set for Shabbat, for example or the Mezuzah on your door, or even a photo of you wearing your Talit and Tefillin.   


If the anti-Semite has no shame doing so publicly, we can learn to wear our pride publicly as well!

Why Verbalize Our Regret?

I am no political analyst, nor do I have any contacts in the higher-ups of government in the U.S.A or in Israel. But it doesn’t take much to understand that what is happening in Israel should be grabbing our attention and we should be concerned, not only for our brethren in the Holy Land of Israel, but also about how the world views the Jewish People. After all, Israel and the Jewish People are one.


To expect Israel not to defend itself or root out the terrorists that swore to destroy us, is to ignore the concept of Teshuva—repentance—in Judaism.


Before you can forgive an individual or a people, they first have to recognize that what they did was wrong.


Let’s look at this week’s Torah portion for some insight. The portion talks about the idea that it is not enough to have regret for an action we may have done; we have to verbalize our regret with vidu, confession. To emphasis this point, we can learn from Maimonides, the well-known codifier of Jewish law. He states, when counting the 613 mitzvot, don’t count “repentance” on its own unless it is accompanied by the verbalization of the regret of the sin.


Why is verbalization of the confession so important? Aren’t our heartfelt feelings what counts most? Perhaps we can just look at our actions, so why need words at all?


Yes, it is true that what truly matters is the feeling of the heart. Not words, as words can be empty.


G-d cannot command us to have a "feeling." He can tell us, though, that if we do have a feeling, we should express it openly so that the feeling is known to all. Ultimately it is about the regret that is in the heart, not about the words that are said. Yet, at the same time, it is the words that G-d commands us to say, and the feelings are what He expects us to have.

At the end of the day, we need to know that although Teshuva is an overarching principle in Judaism, it is not enough to just think it—we have to act on it, we have to show the world that we mean it, and then we can start the process of Teshuva by speaking aloud of our regret.


As long as the enemies of Israel do not clearly state their recognition that the Jews have a right to live in Israel and have a land of their own, how can we even have a conversation? What kind of regret do they have? All they want is to stop the destruction that Israel is causing them. That is not peace. Peace comes after there is sincere Teshuva. When one realizes their errors, the conversation can continue.


What is true in our own life is true on the world stage. What is true in the world, is true in our own little world as well.

Census Taking in Jewish Life

Recently, the Pew Research Center released its report on the Jewish community. The study looked at critical information, from population growth to evolving Jewish interests, as well as the direction in which the Jewish community at large is heading, and so on. These studies are taken across the U.S. every ten years or so. Every ten years or so, many Jewish Federations take a census of their local Jewish population. In Philadelphia, we did so in 2019 and did so ten years earlier and so on. The reason for this is to be understand how to best serve the local Jewish community.


It is interesting though, to point out that over a period of more than 1,300 years, while the Jewish people lived together in the desert and later in the land of Israel, it was easy to count the Jews, yet we see that they were counted only nine times.


The question that arises in this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, is why did G-d want the Jews to be counted at that point?


The famous commentator Rashi points out that G-d counted the people of the Jewish nation because they are precious to Him, but even for something precious, you only count at pertinent times. Since the Jewish people were about to start serving in the Temple, G-d wanted to count them at that auspicious moment.


However, the question begs to be asked, hadn’t G-d just counted the Jews a little while earlier?  Why the need to do so again?


From here we learn that we are not only counted when it is necessary to gather that information, but we are counted out of love. Yet even love is not a good enough reason for us to be counted every day; only on special occasions is it essential to do so.


You might appreciate knowing that the underlying accomplishment of us being counted is not just about G-d’s love to us, but about G-d empowering us. Every time we are counted, G-d is revealing our hidden talents and ability to accomplish great things. When G-d says yes, you count, you make a difference, you do not blend into the crowd—each and every one of us is an individual who matters, He is telling us that we can change this world for the better. 


That is why it is not necessary to count us every single day, but it is important to count us at integral junctures of our life. At the times when we must be reminded of our self-worth, G-d doesn’t despair, and He lets us know how important we all are.

Unplug for a Year

By now you must have heard of the campaign to unplug for a weekend here or there because too much technology is not good for you. This idea is based on a precept in the Torah, that six days you shall work and on the seventh, you shall rest. 


How about unplugging for a full year?


Practically speaking that is impossible for us to do, but how about closing our business for a year? Just taking a sabbatical year off of work. Now we might not be farmers, but if you do some research, you will learn that the Earth needs to rest, and therefore it is imperative for farmers to give the land some time off from growing crops, a year at a time. In fact, just like many non-Jewish stores that remain open seven days a week—where employers rotate their employees so that everyone gets a day or two off—so too, do farmers rotate growing crops in their fields and let different sections rest different years at a time.


Yet, the Torah tells us in this week’s Torah portion, Behar, that the Jewish farmer in the Land of Israel must let their whole land lay fallow for a full year—and that means no income whatsoever. Total shut down.


This begs the question: Why the whole field, “all of your fields,” for the full year? The Torah does not leave us with this question and tells us that every seventh year is a “Shabbat to G-d,” meaning it is to be a year dedicated to G-d. This is not just about fields needing to “rest,” but about the person—the business owner—dedicating that entire year to G-d. Just as we dedicate the seventh day of each week to G-d, so too do we dedicate each seventh year to G-d as well.


Let’s peel back another layer to understand why we observe every seventh day for G-d. Isn’t once a month enough? Why so often? G-d only created the world once, so why do we have to remind ourselves week after week that G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh?


The Torah gives us another reason why we rest on the seventh day: To remind us that we are free from bondage. Once we were slaves in Egypt, but today we are free. To use more modern terminology: The whole week we are slaves to our job, and on the seventh day we unplug and dedicate the day to G-d, to our family, to ourselves. In short, we reconnect to what really matters in our life. To become free again, we unshackle ourselves, we unplug.


Imagine if you could take a sabbatical from work and reconnect to your soul, to your essence, once every seven years. Not because it is better for business, but because it is better for you. Think about this for a moment. I know it might not be practical for everyone, nor is this applicable to us all, but the lesson definitely is.


We can all find the time, whether it be a few hours, a Shabbat or even on a planned vacation, to actually reconnect to G-d, to find that day that we dedicate to bring G-d into our lives.


Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.