Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Why do we Pray?

One of the challenges that prayer presents is the monotony of it. Every time we pray we say the same thing over and over again. The question that we ask ourselves is, how do we keep our prayers fresh and interesting?


The truth is that this question is not only about prayer, which is a relationship between us and G-d. The question can be applied to every relationship. How do we keep our five-minute obligatory phone call with a parent, sibling, or child meaningful? If all we ask is “How are you?” and “How was your day?” then we can be asking the same question.  OK, hopefully we are not experiencing this with a close family member, but how about the cashier in the supermarket? Is small talk real or fake?


Let us look into an interesting conversation between Moses and G-d that transpires in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. Moses turned to G-d and asked Him to appoint Moses’s successor; G-d responded with a command that we Jews should observe the daily offerings.


One may ask, what is the connection between appointing a new leader and the daily offerings?


Moses wasn’t just concerned about who would take over his position as leader; he was more concerned that the new leader should be a person who will connect the Jews to G-d. In response, G-d says, “I don’t want to be ‘off limits;’ I want to be like a father to his children. I want my children to be ‘calling’ on me every day.” Yes, when we call every day, we might start talking about the weather and our calls might start sounding repetitious and maybe even boring. But that continuous connection means that there is a deep, unwavering bond. This is not some kind of official duty, but a warm and loving relationship, the kind that we feel so comfortable with that we stop thinking before we talk, and the words just flow from our mouths and our hearts.


Today, prayer has replaced the daily offerings. Our daily prayers, whether it be the Modeh Ani or the Shema prayer, is our daily call to G-d. If we ever question how meaningful it is, just remember that it is as a child reaching out to their father. Understandably, we want that connection to be a significant one, but at a minimum, we want to ensure the connection is there.

Turning a curse into a blessing

The truth hurts. That is why when you want to curse someone, you look for their weak points.  You find something that they did wrong, and you use that weakness against them.


That is the way Balaam acts toward the Jewish people when Balak hires him to curse the Jews in this week’s Torah portion, Balak.


You see, Balaam was a sought-after prophet, not of the Jewish persuasion. He was hired by the feared leader of the Moabite people, Balak, with the task of getting rid of the Jewish people. “Not with might, not with war or with spears, but with words. If you curse the Jewish people,” he claimed, “their G-d will have no choice but to fulfill your command.”


Balaam looked at the Jewish people’s future and saw that that the Temple would be a place where they would serve G-d. However, he wanted to exploit their weakness. Within their services there were sacrifices, repentance, and atonement. “Aha,” he said to himself. “If there are repentance, atonement, and sacrifices, then there must be a ‘sin’ hiding there as well. Let me curse the Jews for the sins they commit, and they will be doomed.”


However, Balaam was not able to curse the Jewish people—he tried from every angle he could, to no avail. Why? Because he saw how the Jews lived amongst themselves as such a respectful community—each family living in their tent without looking over their shoulder to see how the “Cohens next door” were decorating their home. The level of modesty, respect, and admiration that one family had for the next was so great that Balaam, in his attempt to curse the Jews, blessed them instead.


Here we can take two lessons from this story. First, it is true that we can find each other’s weaknesses, but we can also find each other’s strengths. If you look for the bad in another person, you will end up cursing them (unless G-d steps in to stop you), but if you look for the good, then you will find ways to bless them. 


Another lesson: Dress for success. There is no need to draw undue attention to ourselves so that people will want to look into our homes, or into our lives. There is no need to tempt the Balaks and Balaams of the world.


Are we perfect? Highly unlikely, but there is also no need to draw attention to that fact.

True Love

 How can one experience love without cause for another human being?


Does it come from understating them well or from just accepting them for who they are? On the one hand, the better you understand a person, the better you get to know them, and the stronger the bond. On the other hand, one can say that the mind becomes a hindrance to the connection that you are trying to create, and if you could just remove all the obstacles and connect soul to soul—no thinking, no emotions, just being there for the other person—you will be truly present. However, you might then ask the question, to whom I am connecting?


We experience this dilemma when we try to connect to G-d as well. We want to understand G-d’s commandments, yet there are some that make no sense. How do we connect? Because we understand? Or because He said so?


In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we learn about the “red heifer.” The red heifer is the poster-child of a Chuk-–a law that is beyond comprehension. Now, there are quite a few mitzvot in the Torah that are difficult to understand, but within those laws, there are at least details that are reasonable, comprehensible, that we can wrap our minds around. However, when it comes to the red heifer, every detail about it just does not sit well with us. 


To illustrate the difference between a mitzvah that makes no sense at all vs. one that makes a little sense: We can engrave a word into a stone, and when we do so, the word and the stone become one. However, what happens if we engrave the word so deeply that we make a hole all the way to the other side? In such a case, the word is not only engraved that it can be filled up again and no longer visible, but it becomes one with the stone forever. It is a much deeper connection.


While having a deep understanding of a person gives us a better appreciation of that person, it also limits our appreciation. If we can connect to someone without any inhibitions, “just because,” we are truly free to connect soul to soul. Once we reach that bond, we can layer it up with reason and emotion. Now we can have our cake and eat it, too.


Shabbat Shalom.

Overcoming Obstacles

 Twenty-seven years ago, the world media said that the Chabad Lubavitch movement would come to an end. The Chasidim would continue to live, but the movement, the drive to keep opening Chabad Centers around the world, would die down with the passing of its leader, the Rebbe.


I was young at the time, and it was hard enough to deal with the Rebbe’s passing, but to hear the press talking about the Rebbe’s dreams coming to an end, was devastating. 


Well, if you are reading this post you know how wrong the press was. Moreover, the recent Pew research study shows how Chabad is growing rapidly. 


Learning this week’s Torah portion, Korach, makes me wonder, is there a connection between the press and Korach?


The story of Korach is that he challenged Aaron’s appointment to the position of High Priest. However, as you look beneath the surface, you learn that there is much more to the story. 


Korach was trying to put a wedge between Moses and the Jewish people. He was undermining the authority of Moses by saying, We are a holy nation; you and I are just as holy. Now, as bad as Korach might have been (and he did get punished for his rebellion), we do see that the Kohanim—priests—were given priestly gifts as a result of this challenge, since G-d wanted to make it clear to the Jewish people that Aaron and the priestly families played an important role in Judaism.


This idea, that an argument can eventually bring peace and blessings, is repeated often in life and in the Torah itself. Just look at the creation of the world. On the second day, G-d separated the heavens from the earth—this divide, although necessary, was not categorized as a “good” day. Only when this rift made room for the possibility of the blessings that came on the third day (plants and vegetation), did G-d say “and it was good”—two times! 


Can it be that all the naysayers were what helped propel Chabad to greater heights? I have no idea. I would give credit to the Rebbe himself who was a wellspring of inspiration—a resource of positive thinking. Always telling not only his followers, but anyone who would listen, that anything is possible so long as you try—and keep trying. If nature is not here to help you, well, then you can change nature … a miracle will happen. Or perhaps, we will need to create our own miracles. It is all in our hands.


There are so many lessons to learn from the Rebbe’s life. One particular lesson, and one that relates to the Torah portion of the week, would be that when we are faced with challenges—big or small—never give up hope. Since everything comes from G-d (the challenges included), you have the fortitude to overcome them.


Moses and Aaron overcame their challenge from Korach.


We, too, can overcome our own challenges in our time.   

Intellectual honesty

There are times when you can see the writing on the walls; the subject matter is so clear that you just stop and wonder: How is it possible that so many smart people make such obvious mistakes?


We see this with corporations that don’t make obvious changes that are necessary to be successful. So, too, does it happen in our own personal lives.


In this week’s Torah portion, Shlach, we read the famous episode that explains why the Jews had to wander in the desert for forty years: The mistake of the spies.  


What went wrong?


Here is the story in short: Moses turned to G-d and said that the Jewish people wanted to scout out the Land of Israel before they entered. G-d said, Send scouts if you please (i.e., do so of your own accord). Moses decided that it would be the appropriate thing to do since that way there would be more “buy-in” from the Jewish people. He chose the best available men of the time, one per tribe, and sent them on their way, hoping that they would come back with a good report.  Deep down, Moses also knew that once you give people the autonomy to think on their own, there is a risk that their personal bias could influence their thinking, and he worried that a bad outcome could ensue. Hence, he prayed that at least his pupil Joshua would not be corrupted by that kind of collective thinking.


Moses was right. They came back with a report which recommended that they stay in the desert. They stated that the people living in Israel at the time were too strong and the Jewish people could never conquer them.


What went wrong? How could such smart, capable men make such an error? Did they not remember the miracles that G-d performed for them since leaving Egypt? Did they really think that G-d would abandon them? Of course not. They simply didn’t have intellectual honesty. They were biased. They wanted to remain in the desert because life was good – more spiritual – in the desert. So they fabricated reasons why the Jewish people couldn't go into Israel, where life could be a greater challenge. 


The lesson that we can take from this story is that the importance of approaching every challenge by first stopping and thinking really hard about what motivates us to draw certain conclusions. Are we biased? Are we being intellectually honest? What is the real truth?


At Mount Sinai we called out Na’aseh v’nishma, we will do, and we will hear. Yes, we must act, but we also must understand. However, the process of understanding should not undermine our call to action. 


Had the spies had a desire to connect to G-d and to enter the Land of Israel, nothing would have held the spies back.


If we have the desire to connect to G-d, nothing can hold us back, either.

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