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Rabbi's weekly messages

Pinchas- Surviving in a cave

It was a magical moment: Thirteen Thai boys were finally found in a remote cave in northern Thailand. After nine tense days, millions of spectators were overcome with a new wave of hope, watching the moment two skilled cave divers found them alive and well.

If I were trapped in that perilous, and seemingly hopeless situation, I don't think I would remain sane after so many days. Thankfully, the footage we all saw shows them in good spirits. Though the rescue operation if far from over, possibly even months away (and we pray for a safe and successful operation!) in the meantime, it is vital that the boys maintain optimism and trust that they will make it out.

Our lives can go in unexpected ways, somewhat resembling the challenges of being trapped in a cave. One moment we innocently go about our day when things suddenly turn dark and hopeless. A strain in a relationship, a letdown at work or even a moral failing. If we are to retain our sanity and drive throughout the challenge, we must tether ourselves to the stable reality outside the ‘cave’.

If you are stuck in a cave, it’s not enough to connect with just anyone from outside; You want the most skilled, calm and professional cave divers alive, people like Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, to be looking after you.

So too, in maneuvering our way through life’s ups and downs, I typically can’t go a day without plugging into something higher. My morning routine includes studying Torah, which serves as a lifeline of refreshing clarity. I also look for the teaching and guidance of Jewish leaders and role models like the Rebbe, who have proven themselves experts in navigating life’s challenges. A daily dose of fresh air is vital in guiding and illuminating our paths toward living a meaningful life.

If we are to succeed and stay the course, we must remain upbeat and motivated. Find your spiritual 'Richard Stanton', your Jewish role model, who will guide you and motivate you each day. Then go out and do the work.

Chukas- Great gift-giving advice

Many companies and organizations give gifts to employees and clients. Typically, it will be something with the company's name or logo on it. Seems like a great strategy for building your brand and generating good-will, right?! John Ruhlin, an expert in marketing, thinks they got it all wrong.

In his book, John Ruhlin makes the case for companies to rethink corporate gift giving. For example: engraving a name on a nice gift item is a wonderful idea... Just not the company's name, but the recipient's name! If the heart of a gift is to express how much you cherish the other, then do it on their terms, not your own.

It's like the husband who bought his dream car as a gift to his wife on their tenth anniversary, only to be dumbfounded why she couldn't care less for the gift. The next week, he bought her a bouquet of flowers and wrote her a personal note with it. She didn't stop talking about it for the next year...

This week's Torah portion is Chukat. It means a Mitzvah, but it also means “to engrave”. It discusses some ritualistic Mitzvot (commandments) which are less popular, and, frankly, seem odd and downright strange to our non-Jewish friends. But that’s exactly the point. Giving to the poor, educating our youth, and honesty are all big Mitzvot, but because they make us feel good, (I'm generous, honest, and a great teacher...) they aren't necessarily as impressionable in our relationship with our Creator.

So if you want to take your spiritual journey to the next level, think of it as a gift to your significant other. If you invest in your Judaism only on your terms, just enough to make you ‘feel good’ about it, then it's essentially self-serving. It makes no real impact. Invest on G-d's terms, however, and you will see your relationship blossom. Carve out some time in your day or week for a ritual Mitzvah, the kind that you can proudly say: “G-d, this one is for you..." it will, no doubt, leave a deeply meaningful and lasting impression.

Shlach- CAPS WIN! What a game!

Sports competition obviously strikes a chord with people. I think it's because the story of a team working towards a win is essentially the story of our lives. 

1e81a2dbffcec77ae63902d93514382b.jpgYes, it's a struggle. We lose here and there, for forty-three years we seem to fall short of our goal... Yet, if we stick to our journey, remain motivated and determined, believe in our ability to win and work together with our fellow teammates - we ultimately prevail!

At the end of the day, the challenge is embraced too. The celebration and sense of achievement are only magnified as a result of all the hard work we put into it. No pain no gain.

So what do the Caps winning teach me, making me a better mentch and a better Jew?!

Life is game.
We are the key players.
The Puck resembles our world.
Our job is to help move the world along toward the goal - that humanity's collective consciousness should appreciate that we are truly in the 'gateway' of G-d's loving embrace.

But like the game, In life, we encounter fierce opposition and resistance in trying to do the right thing. Sometimes we question if we are even capable of winning and overcoming the challenge. Whether the challenge appears in the form of people scoffing or standing in our way or feeling depleted and down inside…

Then we remember that the challenge is only there to bring out the best in us, and make the win so much more meaningful.

So let's get to work, give it all you got - we're on the winning team after all :)

Behaalotecha- Too little too late

The story is told of and emergency security cabinet meeting called by the Russian Czar. Napoleon's French army was unstoppable. They conquered every city and town in their path, and were soon approaching St. Petersburg. The mood in the room was that of despair, as the military experts, pointing to the map, showed how close Napoleon was, and concluded: there is no chance of preparing for a counterattack.

The Tsar nodded and then motioned to his personal military secretary to come and ask him: Go to my office, bring the big map of Russia on the wall. It was a map ten times the map of the war cabinet room.

Then the Tsar turned to the army chiefs and said, "Friends, explain to me again the situation, how close is Napoleon and why we have no chance of progress? Well, on the big map, Napoleon was no longer so close, and suddenly there seemed to be hope and it was not too late to go to war to save the situation.

This week's Parshah tells the story of Pesach Sheni, of determined Jews who focused on what can be done today, rather than what was missed yesterday.

"Too Little too late" is a much too narrow and small-minded approach. Remember there is a bigger map up there, which gives room for infinite more opportunities. Take the Jewish approach to problem solving. The only day that really matters is today. Having the past weigh us down us one step today something positive today, tomorrow may be too late.

Naso-“It’s not me”

"I'm sorry I did that yesterday. It's so not me. I don't know what got into me". 

When you hear that, you wonder: Who IS the real "you"? The one who claims the next day - "I can't believe I actually did that", or the one who actually did it.

This week's Torah portion supports the authenticity of the "it's not me" claim. When describing a person's moral failing, the Torah uses an unconventional term (Tisteh), the Talmud explains that a person will only commit a sin if overtaken by foolishness at the moment of their moral failing.

In other words, the real me is good, upstanding and noble. It is just that I have moments when "something got into me". In the heat of the moment, we may temporarily lose sight of our inherent goodness and morality and make a silly choice (which we certainly need to fix and clean our mess).

The Torah's message to us is simple: You are essentially good people; don't let yourself down!

Behar-Bechukotai- Your deleted files

Has this happened to your kids?! My five-year-old Mordechai, would build a nice Lego or Magna-Tiles tower, and just as he's putting the finishing touches to his masterpiece of work, my two-year-old, Rivkah, rushes over and enthusiastically crashes it down to pieces. I'm not sure I get why Rivkah destroys his work, but I certainly relate to why Mordechai gets extremely frustrated.

We are hard-wired to experience a sense of accomplishment. Our work must bear fruit, otherwise, it will leave us feeling empty and deeply frustrated. Think of the time you worked for three-plus hours on a document only to have the file deleted and lost forever.

This is why in this week's Torah portion, we are commanded not to delegate unnecessary jobs and meaningless tasks (e.g. "Warm up this drink for me,” when you do not need it - Rashi) even if we hired them to work for us.

The same must carry into our Divine service too. Every G-d given Mitzvah is infused with purpose. If we find ourselves growing frustrated with a Mitzvah, it must be beckoning us to revisit the meaning and depth behind the Mitzvah. 
Don't let a Mitzvah be a source of frustration, when it has the ability to provide deep satisfaction.

Emor- Is Judaism Relevant?

Is Torah still relevant? Does it have anything enlightening to share with a modern American Jew today occupied with creating a comfortable life for themselves and their family, advancing a career and saving up for a car upgrade?

I know, I know – Judaism certainly has answers to questions like when to light Shabbat candles, what makes a marshmallow Kosher and how to hang my Mezuzah. That's when you pick up the phone and call a Rabbi. But does Judaism contribute to my pursuit of finding happiness in life, becoming more successful at work and improving my communication skills?

In this week's Torah portion, Emor, we read about Shabbat. Here’s a quote from the intro to Shabbat: "Six days you may work and on the seventh day you shall rest". On the surface, this seems like a Mitzvah about Shabbat. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (The one for whom we celebrated yesterday on Lag Ba’omer), however, tells us to read it again. This is not only a Mitzvah to rest on Shabbat, but a Mitzvah to engage in work and productivity the other six days.

In other words: Torah wants me to be successful and live a happy and meaningful life.

If we incorporate time to study Torah's timeless wisdom, not only will we get a better idea on Jewish rituals like Shabbat, but we will likely live a happier, more productive life on the other six days too. Because your best interest is G-d's interests too!

Acharei-Kedoshim- How to get the best advice

Do you ever feel like people just give advice without giving it much thought?

If you ask five people for advice and get five different responses, you may feel like you need an adviser to guide you on which advice will actually be best for you. How do you know whose advice to stick with?

Thankfully, the Torah has some great advice for us.

Obviously, you want to hear from someone who understands the issue and has some experience. But there is another component at least equally important.

In Parshat Kedoshim, which we read tomorrow, the Torah instructs us: "You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person." Beyond its literal meaning, The Talmud understands this Mitzvah to include not giving advice that is improper or unhelpful to a person who is “blind” on any given issue. In other words, it likely that the advisor will neglect to give you advice that is truly in your best interest simply because they didn't take the time to really think about you.

It turns out, giving good advice has more to do with caring and 'loving your fellow as yourself' (as the Torah instructs just a few verses later), than being an expert in the field.

The Rebbe would often suggest people to seek and followadvice from “understanding Friends” (Yedidim Mevinim).

So next time someone asks you for advice, before throwing some expert advice at them - pause, listen and empathize with them, you will be so much more helpful and it's a Mitzvah too!

Tazria-Metzora- Kvetch or thank?

I was visiting some community members today who just survived a dangerous fire. Thankfully, nobody was hurt.

Though we could go on-and-on kvetching about the close-call and loss of property, as Jews, we knew we are trained to focus instead on giving thanks.

We were reminded of the “Gomel” blessing. After surviving a dangerous situation, one recites a blessing thanking G-d "Who bestows good things on the undeserving".

We often take life for granted, however after a “close call”, we are reminded that life itself is a gift. And by actively thanking G-d for life itself we train ourselves to appreciate the myriads of small blessings in our lives.

Life is a mixed bag. No life is perfect and no life is all bad, but naturally we can get carried away by focusing on the bad, we can obsess over what is wrong with our lives rather than what is right, and as a result, we can be unhappy with our lot. No matter how much our lot improves, we can still be unhappy because if we are not happy with what we have, we will not be happy with what we get.

The solution is to give thanks.

The “Gomel” blessing serves as a reminder; If you are alive, you have what it is to be thankful for, how much more so if your basic necessities and beyond are met.

Vayak'hel-Pekudei- How to make worries disappear

It was widely known among the beggars of Minsk, that if you got invited for Shabbat dinner to the home of Moshe the wealthy merchant, it was a bittersweet experience. The food was terrific and in abundance, but you could barely enjoy it, as Moshe would engage you with chit chat and questions, by the time you got a few mouthfuls, the meal was over.

Yankel, though, was the first to change the status-quo.

When Yankel sat down for dinner at the lavish table, Moshe turned to the new guest: “So, where are you from?” “From Pinsk,” answered Yankel. “And how is the community leader, Berl?” “Deceased”, Yankel answered briefly and began to eat. It took the wealthy merchant a few minutes to digest the difficult news, and in the meantime, Yankel finished his fish. “So, how is the city’s Rabbi?” Moshe continued to probe. “Deceased” Yankel answered, and slowly ate his soup.

After getting over his shock, Moshe continued: “And how about the city’s top doctor?” “Also deceased” came the answer. “What’s going on?! Was there an epidemic in the city?” the host asked with a panic. “Not at all,” Yankel replied, as he finished the main course quite satisfied, “it’s just that when I sit down to eat, nothing else matters, I consider everyone and everything deceased.”

This is the secret of the Shabbat candles. No, they do not kill anyone, but they do raise you up to a new sphere, and for those moments nothing else matters. It’s as if all your work is ‘deceased’. The nagging tasks and to-do’s along with the worries come to a screeching stop and in their place comes a quiet peace. Shabbat is not merely a day we don’t technically do work, but a time when our minds are not bothered by it either.

This power of this inner peace is communicated in a few brief words in this week’s Torah portion (Vayakhel-Pekudei): "Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day will be Shabbat." Resting on Shabbat properly, fills us with enough inner peace and tranquility, that it will trickle into the next six days.  Work “will be done”, in a passive sense, more calmly and happily.

Purim- Don’t get blown over

Reb Shmuel, was a pious Russian Jew who immigrated to Brooklyn, New York. One day he had some business to tend to in the city, and went for his first visit to Manhattan. As he makes his way up the glass elevator in the Manhattan skyscraper, they begin to slowly climb, 10th floor… 15th floor… 20th floor… he turns to his friend and remarks in Yiddish: “Az m’haibt zich nor oif fun velt, zet men vi klein zi iz”. If you lift yourself up just a bit from this world, you see how small it really is.

When we observe our world from the window of an airplane, everything seems so small and insignificant. Little toy cars and trucks move slowly on the roads, and the tiny specs throughout are people going about their day. Then you realize, that it is likely that one tiny person down there just threw an insult at another tiny person because of a perceived offense, and it kind of makes you laugh, because when you are soaring high, everything down here looks so small and meaningless...

Mordechai and Esther knew this truth, and knew how to soar above without the help of a glass elevator or an airplane. It is why the Megillah tells us they were ‘unfazed’ and fearless of the threats of Haman and his collaborators, and were able to maintain focus on what they needed to do to guide the Jewish people during a most turbulent time.

This is an important tool to assist us in navigating our own lives and overcoming fears, failures, disappointments and what not. Problems are huge only if we are on the same playing field, but if we raise ourselves up and infuse our life with greater and loftier pursuits, and plug-in to G-d’s plan, we don’t get blown over by the little things that come our way!

Tetzaveh Zachor- Doubting yourself

Do you second-guess your decisions? A double take on your opinion or a humble admission of an error is a sign of tremendous character strength and very admirable.

Second-guessing isn't always a positive thing, though.

The Shabbat before Purim we read an additional Torah portion called Zachor, memory, remembering the crimes committed by the nation of Amalek, who waged battle at the fledgling Jewish nation barely emerging from decades of Egyptian slavery.

There is one major problem though: There are no suspects in this case. The Amalekite people, no longer exist today as a people nor can we identify their descendants (unlike some individuals in Poland today who want to shirk responsibility of their ancestors for terrible crimes committed not so long ago). So why spend our time dissecting the behaviors of a people whose memory has long been forgotten?!

It turns out that Amalek is a phenomenon that always exists. Its mission: to curb enthusiasm. Here you have a motivated people, all fired-up, on their way to embrace the Torah at Sinai, and its got the chutzpah to cool the enthusiasm, and ‘deflate the air out of its tires’.

The tactic is self-doubt. ‘Doubt’ in Hebrew (Safek) has the same numerical value (Gematria) as Amalek. Self-doubt can be very destructive, for when a person lacks confidence in him or herself, in their peoplehood and in G-d, they become weak from within and defeated.

We must eliminate self-doubting our very core - in our ability to believe, to advance and to succeed.

The best antidote to Amalekism is the celebration of Purim. Reading the Megillah evokes memory and heritage, sending Mishloach Manot food gifts, charity to the poor and the holiday meal unite us into one family and make us strong, happy and invincible! Don’t miss the party!

Trumah- The Jewish Demographic Study

Elliott Lasky was like many others, in the sixties, who challenged the status quo, in their search for meaning in life. He thought of finding answers in Buddhism then in music, but even after a two-month stint playing the Rolling Stones on tour in the summer of 1972, he was still searching for a more meaningful path.

He found himself on a bitterly cold day in the winter of 1973 waiting for the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the steps of the famous 770 building in Brooklyn, the red brick house, which serves as the center of the Chabad movement.

Sporting a large beard, shoulder-length hair, snake-skin boots, jeans, and a leather jacket, he approached the Rebbe who had just left his car. In Yiddish he knew from home, he turned to the Rebbe and asked, "Excuse me, are you the Lubavitcher Rebbe?" And from there a 15-minute conversation ensued, which he describes as a most moving one.

"I have a question," he went straight to the point, "where is G-d?" “Everywhere”, the Rebbe replied. "I know," said Elliot, "but where?" The Rebbe answered again: "Everywhere, even in the tree and in the stone.”

“I know”, Elliott said again, as their eyes were still locked, “but where?!” After a pause, the Rebbe responded: “In your heart. G-d is in your heart.”

Elliot Lasky stood beside the Rebbe just a few steps from the synagogue, but when he asked where G-d was, the answer was not: here behind you in the synagogue. The answer was: everywhere, in everything you encounter, and most importantly, in your heart too.

With the release of the latest Jewish demographic study in the Greater Washington area this past week, there is an important element I want to focus on. For some years now, grim forecasts have dominated the discussions regarding the Jewish future in America, pointing to the low numbers of Jews affiliating with “Brick-and-Mortar” Synagogues.

I beg to differ. Jews are onto something big and I think they took a page out of this week’s Torah portion.

“And they should build for me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” we read from the Torah this week. The commentaries are quick to notice: it does not say “Dwell in it”, rather “in them” – it must mean that G-d wants to be at home, in the heart and mind of each individual.

Of course Synagogues are integral to Jewish practice, however, for some, the role of Synagogues in the Jewish experience led to confusion. If I relegate my Judaism to the four walls of the Synagogue, my Judaism will be lacking and empty. No, the Cantor will not pray for me, and the Rabbi will not study for me, I need to experience it myself. Judaism and G-d need to be built in my heart!

Jews seek meaningful Jewish experiences not merely in the synagogue, but in our everyday lives. At our dinner table, at work or on a road trip. We immerse the family in a weekly highlight at the Friday night Shabbat dinner, or make infuse meaning into the day by listening to Torah class on-the-go.

Let us harness the movement of making Judaism ever more relevant in our personal lives, and seek opportunities to introduce more Mitzvos and more study in our daily routines!

Mishpatim- Missing something?

If your spouse were to be away for the weekend and you were left home with the kids you would probably feel merely ‘half’ as capable. Incidentally, that is precisely my predicament this Shabbat, as Devorah is in New York City joining thousands of Chabad emissaries and Rebbetzins for the annual Shluchot conference.

A greater achievement, though, is to recognize this truth when we are together with our spouse or family member or community member or co-worker. To realize that our abilities, wisdom, and very quality of life is made complete only with another. Alone we are merely half.

This is the message Moses conveyed in Shekalim, the bonus Torah portion we read each year this pre-Purim season. By commanding the Jews to donate precisely a half-Shekel coin, then take a census by counting the coins. In this process, we recognize that on our own, we each amount to half. I am only complete when I join with another.

This is so important to our lives that when the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi organized the prayer book, he inserted this as an opening to the daily prayer: It is proper to say before prayer, I hereby take upon myself to fulfill the mitzva - "Love your fellow as yourself."

Try it. Begin your day with this humble, yet empowering declaration and realization. Why settle for less, if we can embrace another and become complete?!

Beshalach- Think big

There’s an old tale about a beggar, Shmeryl, who would go around town every day, knocking on doors, collecting money to feed himself before laying down for the night. What made his job even more tiring, was that in his town, the houses had many steps leading up to the front doors. This really took a toll on his already frail body. He would often complain about his predicament, but Shmeryl learned to accept his reality, and life went on.

One day, Shmeryl’s luck was shining. He purchased a ticket in the Lotto, and sure enough… Shmeryl had the winning ticket. Our beggar became an instant millionaire! “Now that I am wealthy”, Shmeryl shared with his friends that evening, “I will have much influence and others will listen to me. My first project will be, to establish a new law: No home shall be built with an entrance higher than three steps from the street. From now on, when I'm done with my rounds collecting money, I will never be so oisgemutchet (rung out)…”

Do we sometimes act like Shmeryl?

The Jews are finally freed from Egypt in this week’s Torah portion, after a century of horrible enslavement. Yet, throughout their journeying, when they encounter a bump in the road, we often hear of some pushing to go back to Egypt. But how could it be?! Who in their right mind would willingly return to subjugate themselves to sub-human living conditions and instantly give-up their basic dignity?!

This tells us a deep truth of human behavior; we sometimes are so entangled and boxed into the reality we have become accustomed to, that we prefer it over a better and greater reality we are unfamiliar with.

We must let go of what holds us back. We need to ask ourselves: What is really stopping me from taking a big leap in my personal life or in my Judaism? Is it just habit? We gotta think big!

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