Rabbi's Blog

A weekly message from Rabbi Menashe Wolf

The Year of Gathering

 

 

September 30, 2022 | Parshat Vayelech

This week's message is a little longer than usual and is an excerpt of my sermon at Dirah on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah. If you haven’t yet, please make your reservations for Yom Kippur here.

This year is a special year. Well, every year is special - the Kabbalists speak of the brand new energy that each year brings - but this year is especially so. It is the year of Hakhel. A year of community.

We all know the value of community. Last summer, the air conditioner in my kids' room broke. It was a sweltering hot day, and I needed a replacement urgently. Before going out to buy a new one, I posted on the Buy Nothing Facebook group to see if anyone had a unit that they no longer needed. That same day I was able to pick one up from a neighbor. And we both gained: I got a working AC and they felt good that they helped a neighbor - and got a chunky unit out of their storage space.

But there's more to a community than just mutual benefit.

In Temple times, every seven years was Shemitah - a Sabbatical year for the land and farmers. This past year was a Shemitah year, and farmers across Israel took a year off from working the land.

Following the Shemitah year, there was a mass gathering on Sukkot of the next year. A gathering called Hakhel.

Millions of Jews from around the world - men, women, and children - would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and gather in the Temple. The highlight of the event was the reading of the Torah from the King, the leader. It would have been a sight to see: the streets of Jerusalem flowing with flocks of diverse Jews all heading to, and spilling out of, the Temple. The Temple itself would have been bursting at the seams, with people packed in like sardines.

What was the point of this gathering? I can only imagine that most people weren't able to hear. Even those that heard, plenty wouldn't have understood the Biblical passages being read. The young children who were shlepped along definitely didn't appreciate the reading. Yet they all came; Torah instructs everyone to gather (in this week's Parshah) and gather they did. In truth, the Jews didn’t come to see or to hear. They came to gather. To experience.

You see, there's something incredibly powerful about community. Something more than just functional.

I once learned from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that there are actually three terms for community employed in Jewish tradition: Edah, Tzibur, and Kehilah. Although used interchangeably, they differ slightly in their connotation. Edah (literally, witnesses) is a group bound by shared experience and fate. They have a strong sense of collective identity. Tzibur (literally, pile) connotes a group that is diverse and fragmented. They are bound by nothing more than proximity. Kehilah (literally, gathering) is a different type of community. It describes a group of different and diverse people who are bound by a collective goal. They are united by a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. This is the ideal Jewish community. This is what the Hakhel gathering (from the root Kehilah) accomplished.

This form of community was highlighted in the aftermath of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down the mountain and witnessed the betrayal of the Golden Calf, he smashed the Tablets in protest. Just weeks after experiencing the Divine revelation, the new nation had served a foreign deity.

Now Moses faces the herculean task of regrouping the Jewish and helping them recover from this tragic mistake. The first thing that Moses did to restore the Jewish nation was to gather them together. Vayakhel.

Moses knew that the antidote to the Golden Calf, the strength of the Jewish people, was to be found in sacred community. In Kehilah. In uniting the people for one goal.

At that moment of gathering, he taught them two Mitzvot: to observe Shabbat - a holy day of rest - and to build the Mishkan - the sacred home for G-d. In these two commandments, he shared the secret to community building. For a community to form it has to be driven by a goal higher than itself. Shabbat creates a community in time and the Mishkan a community in space.

For better or worse, work divides us. Some people have great jobs while others work menial jobs at minimum wage. Others still are out of work altogether. In the workplace, we're all looking out for our own individual interests. But Shabbat is the great equalizer. We all rest the same. During the week we are creators - and we create differently, even competitively. On Shabbat, we step back to appreciate our role as creations of G-d, and that unites us. Shabbat designates one day of the week for us to be together. To be equals in a shared mission and faith.

Our homes also separate us. The walls of our houses create boundaries. My home is my space and your home is yours. Some homes are beautifully decorated with expensive furniture while others are sparse and simple. But the sacred communal space of the Temple belongs to everyone equally. It is where we come together seeking truth, transcendence, and G-d. In that search, we are all equal. As Shabbat does in time, the Temple designates a geographic place where we feel as one and join together in community.

The point of the Hakhel gathering was not (just) to hear the Torah being read. It was for Jews to gather and feel a part of one nation. It was for every single Jew to feel they belonged. They belong to something larger than themselves. To sense their collective faith in G-d. The mass gathering created a community. It formed a Kehilah.

This year is the year of Hakhel. And it couldn't have come at a better time. We need it now more than ever. After over two years of being wary to gather, we need the warm embrace of community. After more than two years of hesitating to join gatherings, we need to grab every opportunity to get together.

In the Hakhel of old, the priests would walk the streets blowing trumpets, calling everyone to gather. Today, in the absence of the Temple, we are all priests. We can all be ambassadors of gathering. Find every excuse to bring people together. Bring your family together on every possible occasion. Bring your co-workers together for a party or a discussion. Invite friends to your home for a Shabbat dinner. Host gatherings of all types. Include people in your micro-community. And together we can all join in the macro-community.

At Dirah, we are making every effort to increase community and gather together more often. We are undertaking two initiatives to mark the Year of Gathering. Following the two-pronged community building plan of Moses, we'll be increasing community in time and space.

1. Community in Time: We will be having Shabbat services every Friday evening. Instead of periodical Kabbalah Shabbat, we'll now be gathering every week.

2. Community in Space: It is a dream of ours that Dirah can secure a permanent space, which would enable us to increase our programming and bring everyone together more. G-d willing, this will be the year! In the meantime, in the absence of our own formal space, we can make every home into a sacred space of community. We are offering you to host a study/discussion group in your home. Invite a few friends, choose a topic, and we will come over to lead a discussion.

I hope we can all participate together in this Year of Gathering and continue to build and nurture our wonderful community.

I am looking forward to seeing you all at these gatherings!

Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

Renewal and Rosh Hashanah

 

 

September 23, 2022 | Parshat Nitzavim 

Something most of us have learned the hard way is that we need sleep to function.

For a long time, this phenomenon bothered me, partly because sleep eats up so much of our lives, and partly because I didn't understand why it had to be this way. Couldn't G-d engineer a more efficient product? Couldn't we have been designed to have enough energy to last a lifetime?

Lately, though, I have come to appreciate the brilliance of this biological design. It's not only the body that needs to rest each day, the conscious soul needs to too. Sleep makes each day a fresh experience. Imagine you had a really bad day, and by the time night rolls around, you are sad, annoyed, and not in the mood for anything. If your day would continue forever you would be stuck in that cycle of depression. Instead, you go to sleep and wake up reenergized. In the morning you are a new person with new energy, ready for a new start.

By forcing us to reset ourselves in order to reenergize, G-d ensured a fresh start every day. Each morning, the soul returns like a new birth, giving us a lease of life.

Spiritually the same thing happens to the world on Rosh Hashanah. Each New Year the world is invested with energy to sustain it for one year. According to the Kabbalists, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, there's a moment of cosmic sleep before a rebirth when new energy invigorates the world for the new year.

G-d could have invested energy at creation that would sustain the world forever, but He chose to provide one year of life at a time, to make each year new. Just like you feel refreshed each morning, on a much larger scale, Rosh Hashanah is a potent time to refresh your life.

What does this rebirth look like? How can we access this renewal and harness it to make refreshing changes in our lives? This is one of the themes that we’ll be exploring throughout the Rosh Hashanah explanatory services this week - and something that is embedded in the sounding of the Shofar. I hope you can join me to participate in the discussion and hear the piercing sounds of the Shofar.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

Don’t Give Charity

 

 

September 16, 2022 | Parshat Ki Tavo

Judaism doesn't believe in charity. The closest word in Hebrew is Tzedakah, which is rooted in Tezedek - justice or righteousness. Giving to the poor is a responsibility not a luxury.

The social contract outlined in Torah is as radical as it is simple. Every producing person has to set aside a (somewhat significant) portion of their earnings to give to those less fortunate.

In the ancient agricultural society there was a complex 7-year cycle of taxes and tithes, as we read this week: “When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give [them] to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities." But the modern application is much simpler: Designate 10% of your net income to give to those in need.

It's not an easy thing to part with your hard-earned money, especially if you yourself are just getting by or even struggling yourself. But a simple re-framing of perspective can make it easier.

As hard as you've worked to get where you are and bring in the money that you do, there's a great deal of good fortune that has gotten you there. The income that you have is a blessing from above. This is true whether you are living very comfortably or pinching pennies. The amount that you make, however much or little, is somewhat beyond your control - a gift from G-d. And He has earmarked part of that blessing for others. In His kindness, G-d has designated you to be a banker, trusting you with the finances that are meant to be passed on to help others.

This is a profound Jewish value that can change the way we look at and interact with the less fortunate. Personally, I have implemented this into my banking and it's a game-changer. We created a separate Tzedaka checking account. Every time we deposit our earnings, we transfer 10% of it to that account. That money isn't for us. When someone needs our help or an organization reaches out for funds we are so happy to give. We don't feel a pinch or the slightest hesitation. The money is literally sitting there waiting for us to give it to them.

With this attitude you never "give charity". You're not giving of your money to the less fortunate; their money was temporarily entrusted in your hands. You don't feel pained when you encounter someone in need and have to dip in to your account to help them. You're not parting with your money. Instead, you have a fund that you are looking to distribute. There's a pool of income that is designated for the less fortunate and you are the trustee.

We are promised in Torah that when we give graciously, we also gain: "You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for because of this thing the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors." If we open our hearts and hands to those that need, G-d will open the channels of blessings for us too.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

 

Don’t Fall Off the Roofs You Build

 

 

September 09, 2022 | Parshat Ki Teitzei 

The higher you climb the further you can fall. The more we progress as a society, the higher the stakes get. When you're at the peak, mistakes prove much more costly.

In this week's Torah portion, we read 74 of the 613 Mitzvahs (that's over 10%!). One of them is the responsibility of a homeowner to build a fence around the perimeter of their roof for safety: "When you build a new house, you shall make a guardrail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, lest someone fall from there."

Like everything in Torah, this idea operates on many levels. Beyond the practical function of the Mitzvah lies a conceptual reading with a spiritual and moral teaching.

To maintain the things we build, we have to create boundaries. If we permit ourselves to grow without limits, our successes end up being employed against their own interests. We have to have morals and values that guard our success and protect us from falling. We have to build fences around our buildings.

This is true of society at large and in our personal lives too. The most precious parts of our lives are the most fragile: our family relationships, our personal spiritual and mental health and even our material successes. We have to create healthy boundaries and center ourselves to our core ideals and values to ensure that we can stand atop of our achievements and not allow them to bring us down.

The Mitzvot, rituals and values within Judaism provide a healthy framework for practical and spiritual boundaries that ensure the structures that we build throughout our lives are stable and protected. As we approach the New Year, let’s put some thought into investing in these fences. What Mitzvah can you add that will center you and ground you in a healthy way?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

A Spiritual Safe Space

 

September 2, 2022 | Parshat Shoftim

Do you have a sanctuary to immerse yourself in to escape from your worries and fears? Is there an activity that you do to reconnect with yourself and leave behind the stresses of the workday, the pressures of society and the craziness of life? Where - or what - is your personal refuge?

When the Jews entered Israel they were charged with establishing Cities of Refuge. These spaces were designed to provide accidental killers a place to run to and find safety from the relatives of the dead who may be after their blood. But more than just being places of safety, the Cities of Refuge also served as remedial programs, providing the accidental killer with the time and resources to immerse themselves in Torah study, giving them an opportunity to consider the gravity of their actions and atone for their behavior.

Like the geographical places that provided protection for people on the run, there are conceptual places of refuge that can provide mental and spiritual safety from the negativity of this world. The Torah, the divine wisdom that is accessed through the study of our texts and traditions, has been a refuge for Jews for millennia. Immersion in the study of the transcendent wisdom has allowed us to survive as a people for thousands of years, shielding us from forces - both physical and spiritual - that have threatened to destroy us.

Today more than ever, we could benefit from temporary escapes into the wellsprings of Torah. Wherever we turn, we are constantly being hounded with ideas trying to influence our minds and hearts. From brands pushing their products on billboards and social media to commentators selling their beliefs on the radio and TV, our society is an endless marketplace of ideas competing for our attention. With all of the noise and distraction, it’s hard to know what is real, and even harder to remain true to who we really are.

Torah study anchors us in a transcendental truth, provides the wisdom and tools to live an enriching life, and gives us insight into our inner selves. Spending a few minutes each day engaging with Torah texts, can give us context and perspective to understand the world and help shape the narratives of our lives. The spiritual depth and practical wisdom in the Torah texts are the perfect antidotes to the craziness of the world we live in.

The month leading to Rosh Hashanah - Elul - has been labeled the City of Refuge in time. It is an opportunity to step back before the New Year and realign ourselves with our calling and begin the new year on the right foot.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

 

Now Is The Time To Climb

 

 

August 26, 2022 | Parshat Re'eh 

Meaningful achievements come through consistent effort and disciplined preparation. To run the marathon, you need to train for weeks. To read your Bar Mitzvah portion, you need to practice for months. To practice law or medicine, you need to study for years.

Spiritual achievements and experiences are no different. To grow and connect with something deeply, you have to prepare for it. Just like physical strength is built by exercise, spiritual growth is attained by ongoing intentional practice.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the big days on the Jewish calendar. They are the spiritual peaks of the year. But you can't reach the peak without first climbing the mountain. The Kabbalists pointed to the month leading up to the High Holidays, the Jewish month of Elul - which begins tomorrow - as the real time for growth. Like Rosh Hashanah, we blow the Shofar every day of Elul, but it’s a very different experience.

The founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, likened the opportunity in Elul to a king traveling in the field. When the king is seated on his throne in the palace, access to him is limited. And even those that are allowed entry are humbled by the encounter. But when the king is traveling through the field everyone has access to him, no matter their social standings, worthiness or attire. And they can approach him in their work-clothes, in their natural environment.

The High Holidays are akin to visiting the king in the palace. The services are serious and solemn. We follow a precise formula of Shofar blowing, praying and fasting. The experience is deep and moving, but it's rigid and formal. It's disconnected from our real-life experience. We have to escape our regular routine to enter G-d's presence.

But in this month without Holidays, we have easier access to G-d and can connect with Him on our turf. We connect with Him within the course of our regular lives and work schedules. G-d is accessible to us wherever we are.

So don't wait for the High Holidays to get inspired. Instead, spend a couple of minutes each day for the next month doing something good. Add a prayer each day. Give a little extra charity. Spend a minute or two in spiritual self-reflection. These small steps will create real growth, and ensure a successful year ahead.

To capitalize on the potential of this month, I will be sharing a short thought every day (besides Shabbat) for the next month leading up to Rosh Hashanah exploring the spiritual themes of growth, repentance, and renewal. You can join these mini-lessons on our Facebook page and Youtube channel, or you can email me to have it sent to you.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,

 

Rabbi Menashe

 

The Blessing of Neediness

 

 

August 19, 2022 | Parshat Eikev

We hate having to rely on others. It's uncomfortable. It makes us feel weak. It means we can't do it ourselves. But this vulnerability is what creates relationships and community. If we were completely self-sufficient we'd never reach out to other people and build friendships. We wouldn't band together in communities to support each other. Our supposed weakness is really a strength.

The same is true on a broader scale with our collective relationship with G-d. When the Jews were about to enter Israel, Moses contrasted their new Homeland with the country they had come from: While the crops in Egypt were watered from the Nile River, Israel relied on rainwater to sustain its growth. In Egypt, the irrigation was man made and completely under the control of the people. In Israel, the rainwater was unpredictable and they would be at the will and mercy of forces beyond their control.

Moses wasn't trying to discourage the Jews on the eve of their long-awaited entry to Israel. Recognizing the limits of human ability and achievement and the inherent instability of our societies is actually a blessing. Acknowledging our weakness and limits causes us to reach out to the Creator and elicit His help. It opens a space to connect with G-d and develop a relationship with the Divine.

The Jews’ eventual dependency on a blessing of rain in Israel was actually a positive. It would ensure that they maintained a relationship with G-d and never forget about their Father in heaven. It would strengthen their faith and encourage a strong religious life. Their vulnerability was the cornerstone of their relationship with G-d.

We all have vulnerabilities and weaknesses. We can choose to let them weigh us down or allow them to be catalysts for strong relationships with our friends and neighbors, and with G-d.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

Life is a Jigsaw Puzzle

 

 

August 12, 2022 | Parshat Va’etchanan

Life is like a jigsaw puzzle. There are so many pieces that all look different and, at first, don't seem to fit together. But ultimately, the scattered pieces are part of one whole and match perfectly to collectively create a single picture.

The most basic Jewish belief is that there's one G-d. It's the first of the 10 Commandments. It is the highlight of the Shema. But what does it actually mean? It is not just a numbers game, one versus many, but a revolutionary shift in perspective.

Belief in monotheism is not only about G-d, but a perspective on our experience of reality too. Having one G-d means that there is order to the chaos. It means that there is a singular beginning of existence, and everything is a result of that oneness. It means that there is a unified purpose to all of life. It means that everything is here for a reason - including me and you. It means that all life is sacred.

In this week's Torah portion we read (Devarim 4:35) "that the Lord He is God; there is none else besides Him," and (Devarim 4:39) "that the Lord He is God in heaven above, and upon the earth below; there is none else." A careful reading shows that not only is there no other G-d besides Him, there is no other. Period. The Chassidic masters noticed this and highlighted it. We don't just believe in one G-d; we believe in Oneness, and that is G-d. Every part of life and existence is a fragment of the Singularity. Everything is G-d.

Like pieces of a puzzle, the myriad details that make up our lives and all of reality are each seemingly separate. They have different colors, designs, and shapes. Each is unique. But together they form a unified picture. When pieced together, you can see that all along they were part of one whole.

Just knowing that we are all pieces of one large puzzle is comforting. Recognizing that there's a unified purpose and plan, even without knowing what it is, changes our perspective. But we shouldn't stop there.

G-d created the splintered puzzle and handed it over to us with a tutorial to help us piece it together. He gave us the Torah, the blueprint of the world. The moral, spiritual and practical guidance in Torah provides the bigger picture that we can work off to repair the fractured world. Every Mitzvah that we do creates harmony. Each good deed fits pieces together and allows some of the bigger picture to shine through.

Our role is to return the fragmented pieces of reality to their Oneness. To connect each dot to its source in the Creator and uncover the spirituality in every piece of existence. To fit the pieces together to create a singular beautiful picture - a utopian society that is in sync with its purpose and creator. This is the Messianic reality that we are waiting for, praying for, and most of all bringing about through our actions.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Menashe

Disagree with Dignity

 

 

August 5, 2022 | Parshat Devarim

We all dream of a kinder and more respectful world. But what does such a world look like?

Do we hope for a time when everyone agrees about everything? Such a society would be boring, unimaginative, and suppressive.

Do we wish for a world of radical acceptance, where everyone is free to say and do what they want? That would lead to anarchy and an immoral society where people get away with everything.

The truth is that we are all different, and it's only natural that we see things differently. Being accepting doesn't mean that you can't disagree - just do so respectfully. Being kind doesn't mean you have to let everyone do what they want - just tell them off with dignity.

This week we begin the 5th book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy) where Moses spends the final 37 days of his life lecturing the Jewish people (a sermon that spans the entire book of Devarim), using their past mistakes as a springboard for an ethical and spiritual vision for their future in Israel.

Moses could have let the Jews' past mistakes slide - let bygones be bygone. He could have ended his career (and life) on a high note, being adored by the people. But Moses knew that these were important lessons, and it would be beneficial for the Jews to hear this criticism, even if it would make him less popular. To ignore their past failings would be to accept them, and not help the people learn and grow.

So he set about preaching to the people, but he framed his strong rebuke in the most respectful way. Even though his criticism was pretty harsh, Jewish tradition sees it as an exemplar of sensitive dialogue. Here are a number of examples:

▪ Moses waited until the end of his life to air his criticism. The Midrash (Sifrei Devarim 2) learns from Moses: "There are four reasons why you should rebuke someone close to your death: So you don't rebuke them repeatedly; so they don't feel shame in your presence; so you don't bear a grudge in your heart (for the rebuke not being heeded); and so that the rebuke leads to peace."

▪ Moses used vague references to their failings instead of spelling out their mistakes publicly. Rashi points this out in his commentary: "it makes no explicit mention of the incidents [in which they transgressed], but rather merely alludes to them, [by mentioning the names of the places] out of respect for Israel"

▪ Moses gathered all of the Jews together to tell them off. The Midrash explains that this was to give everyone a fair chance to defend themselves.

Moses' example teaches us how to disagree with dignity, rebuke with respect, and maintain respectful conversation even when we feel that others are wrong or have made terrible mistakes. Using this template, our society can be kind and embracing even while having absolute standards, and we can all be respectful to everyone even while strongly disagreeing with them.

This Shabbat is the 9th of Av - the anniversary of the destruction of the Temples. Because we don't want to display sadness on Shabbat, we observe the mourning rituals and the fast of Tisha B'av on Sunday. According to tradition, the Temple was destroyed on account of baseless hatred and Jewish infighting. It stands to reason, then, that through love and acceptance we can bring about its renewal. While we mourn the loss of the Temple this week, let's take a lesson from Moses and make an effort to treat everyone with respect and dignity and show sensitivity to others, even those we disagree with.

Wishing you an easy and meaningful Tisha B’av.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

 

The Journey is the Destination

 

 

 

July 29, 2022 | Parshat Matot-Masei

Imagine a person who has been put on a diet. On their way home, they walk by a café and see their favorite dish being served. They're tempted to go in and order it, but knowing that their new diet doesn't allow it, they control themselves and walk on. As they keep walking, the urge grows stronger. Finally, after 10 minutes of struggle, they succumb and walk back to order the dish for lunch.

Conventional wisdom looks at this person as having failed. They didn't keep to their diet. Our society rewards people for results, not efforts. We celebrate reaching our goals, and don't care much for the work it takes to get there. The bottom line is the only thing that matters.

But what would the dieter's personal coach say? "Wow! You controlled your urge for a whole ten minutes. What an amazing start!" Looking at the person and valuing their struggles helps appreciate how each moment of control is a success.

This week's Torah reading details the Jews' encampments throughout their 40 years in the desert. Although it records the destinations they camped at, it is titled Masei - Journeys, emphasizing their efforts along the way. There's an old adage: "Fool's gold is at the end of the rainbow. The real gold is on the way." More important than where the Jews reached is what they did to get there. Every day is another story, and every moment another battle. Each small step in the right direction is a giant leap and each little victory is invaluable.

 

The Baal Shem Tov taught that the 42 journeys of the Jews from the birth of the nation until it reached its Homeland are reflected in each of our lives. We go through many stages and phases, challenges and successes. At different times in our lives, we are camped in different places - geographically, mentally, and emotionally. Yet we aren’t defined by the places we’ve reached, but by the journeys we’ve undertaken to get there.

G-d sees each person as an individual and each moment as eternity. He is like a personal coach who recognizes our struggles and appreciates our progress. This is a profound mindset shift. Life isn't about succeeding, but about trying your hardest. You are not judged by your overall achievements, but by your performance each moment. Success is not measured by which rung of the ladder you've reached, but by the direction that you're headed. The journey is the destination.

If you're going through a challenging time - know that the place you are in now is only temporary; it is for some reason a part of the journey to your Promised Land. If you are fairly comfortable in your current place in life - know that you have further to go and grow. Don't be complacent. Journey on.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

 

Making Daily Sacrifices

 

 

July 22, 2022 | Parshat Pinchas

After I pulled some muscles in my neck a couple of weeks ago I made a commitment to exercise regularly. I got in touch with a friend, who is a workout enthusiast, to help create a workout routine.

After sending me a daily routine, he emphasized that more important than what I do each day is that I do something every day. The best workout routine is the one you do consistently. The ideal exercise plan is not an occasional workout, but a steady routine.

It turns out that the soul operates the same way as the body.

There's a wonderful debate in the Midrash about which verse in the Torah is the most important. Several rabbis offer conventional responses: "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one" among them. One of the group, Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi, suggests an unlikely verse about the daily Temple offerings from this week's Torah portion, that the Midrash ends up siding with: "The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening."

Of all the theological principles and social values in the Torah, is the daily sacrifice really the most foundational?

It's not the meaning of the sacrifice that makes it the most important verse, but the fact that the same exact sacrifice was offered every morning and evening without exception. There are plenty of Jewish highlights, practices, and ideas that excite the mind and warm the heart - these are the heavy workouts for the soul. But more important than these big ideas is the ongoing commitment to Jewish living day in and day out.

Our relationship with G-d is cemented in the consistent effort we invest. If a commitment to daily implementation is missing, all of the big ideas are worthless. And if it's there, everything will come along with it. Just like a relationship is built on consistent expressions of love over the occasional expensive gift, G-d appreciates our consistent sacrifices. Our souls are nourished by the small good things we put into our regular routine.

And the verse emphasizes a need for consistency in the morning - the bright times in our life when we are inspired to follow through on our commitments, and in the evening - the dark and challenging times when we may not be in the mood.

It could be a commitment to pray every day or light Shabbat candles on a consistent weekly basis or have regular Torah study sessions. These commitments don't make the headlines and may not make you feel inspired, but they are your ongoing expressions of commitment to Judaism. They are the ideal workout for the growth of your soul relationship with G-d.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

A New Appreciation for Stars

 

 

July 15, 2022 | Parshat Balak

It's hard to do it in Brooklyn, but there's something magical about looking up at the sky on a clear night and seeing the dazzling array of stars. Tiny specks of light dot the night sky in a mesmerizing pattern, serving as a window into the vast universe around us.

Now that inspiring sight is but a few thousand stars that can be seen with a naked eye. Earilier this week NASA released pictures from its James Webb Telescope that were absolutely beautiful and inspiring. It's beyond me to fully appreciate the scope of what they portray, but at the very least they paint a vivid picture of a world so vast and detailed. Scientists estimate that there are 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars out there in the universe! Each of those stars is a world of its own, being born into existence with a dazzling array of radiation light and dust. Each with its unique age and frequency.

Before the telescope was dreamed of, only one person had ever seen the stars from this angle. In Genesis, G-d took Abraham on a journey beyond the Earth's atmosphere and told him "Look at the stars. Are you able to count them?" Abraham saw the cosmic light show and was blown away. G-d promised him that his offspring will be as astounding. In this week's Torah portion, the non-Jewish prophet Bilam blesses the Jews with the same symbolism: "A star goes forth from Jacob."

We can look at the images of the vast universe and dizzying number of stars and be impressed at how small and insignificant we are, or we can marvel at it in awe of the One who created it all. We are told that G-d counts the stars and individually names each one of them (Psalms 147). It may be beyond us to appreciate, but every one of those balls of energy has a unique identity, purpose, and function.

Like stars, each of us shine individually and uniquely. From our vantage point on earth, the stars in the heaven seem tiny and insignificant. But when you see them up close, you realize how powerful, significant and bright each one is. Humans are the same. We sometimes feel so small and insignificant. Or we judge others to be insignificant But when you zoom in on each individual person, we are all incredibly majestic and beautiful bundles of light, radiating positive energy.

And like stars that historically served as guides in the dark night, we each radiate a bright light that can positivley influence our surroundings and be a moral and spiritual guide to the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

Is the Universe on Your Side?

 

 

July 8, 2022 | Parshat Chukat

Have you ever felt that the universe was on your side and everything just worked out and fell into place the way you wished it to? Or, the opposite, have you sensed a negative force that made every little thing into a giant task?

According to the Jewish mystics you might not have been imagining this. And what's more, the spiritual teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidus explain that reality is shaped by our attitudes and whether things beyond your control work in your favor may very well be caused by your mindset.

This Chassidic variation of the law of attraction is highlighted in this week’s Parshah. After Miriam died the miraculous rock that provided water to the wandering Jews in the desert dried up. The people quickly became thirsty and complained to Moses. G-d instructed him to speak to the rock and it will produce water.

As Moses approached the rock, he turned to the onlooking nation in a fit of anger and said: "Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?" Then, instead of talking to the rock, he struck it with his staff and water flowed.

Moses had been instructed to talk to the rock, not hit it. The greatest of all Jewish leaders had faltered. G-d was disappointed at the missed opportunity to sanctify Him and it was this mistake that ultimately cost Moses his opportunity to lead the Jews into the land of Israel.

Why did Moses hit the rock instead of talking to it? And why was that such a big deal?

The Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, provides a deep insight into this story. G-d designed the world to facilitate humanity's quest to live an elevated life. As long as we live in sync with this vision - a life of kindness, respect, and meaning - the world will naturally - by design - conform to assist us. But when we lose sight of the divine purpose in our lives and the depth and value of other people, we undermine this hierarchy and reality doesn't bend to the mental space we occupy.

Were Moses to have been in an inspired mood, the inanimate rock would have conformed to his will and provided water at his request. But in his dispirited state of anger, when he was momentarily blinded to the Jews’ beautiful potential, he didn't see the world as a reflection of G-d. In that moment of failure, the rock wasn’t beholden to him. It would not conform to his word without being forced to by the hit of his stick and he had no choice but to hit the rock. Hitting the rock was only a symptom of the problem; his sin was losing faith in his people and in the divine image inherent within them.

When we have sincere faith amazing things happen. When we are inspired by our purpose in this world and inspired to see the beautiful divine depth in every person around us, we sense the beauty and harmony in the world. And reality around us aligns itself to confirm that. Things fall into place for us. Things work out in ways we could never have expected. When we aim to uplift people, doors open up for us. When we try to make the world a more G-dly place, nature becomes our assistant.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

What Defines a Good Leader?

 

 

July 1, 2022 | Parshat Korach

It was a political scandal that threatened to tear apart the Jewish community. Moshe had appointed his brother Aaron to the position of High Priest, and people complained of nepotism. Korach, Moshe and Aaron's relative, riled up his friends and neighbors and led a rebellion against his cousins.

After the attempted coup was quashed, G-d designed a test to prove the legitimacy of Aaron's appointment. Each tribe would put forward a barren staff to be placed together in the Temple. The staff that blossomed overnight would determine who G-d had chosen to be the spiritual leader. Indeed, Aaron's staff blossomed supernaturally and sprouted almonds, while the others remained plain.

The test was meant not only to show who should lead, but to teach what leadership is. The role of a leader is to see people's potential and help them blossom. A leader is someone that can take a barren staff--a dry, lifeless stick--and make it flower. Every person is created in G-d's image and has a unique and incredible potential. A true leader recognizes that and knows how to unlock that potential and help the person utilize it.

For me personally, and for the Jewish world at large, this Shabbat is a very special day - marking 28 years since the passing of the Rebbe - my mentor and spiritual guide to millions. The Rebbe was a profound leader and visionary who inspired and led a Jewish renaissance in post-Holocaust Judaism - perpetuated by a cadre of thousands of Chabad Shluchim couples around the globe. Although time keeps pushing us further from when the Rebbe lived and breathed among us, his leadership and impact only continues to grow.

There are many things to say about the Rebbe, but one thing stands out in particular. He genuinely cared for every individual. He saw each person’s potential and did what he could to help them blossom. He sensed their divine soul and fanned its flames. He encouraged and guided people to unleash their unique spirit and often saw in them budding talents and a flowering potential that they themselves were unaware of.

To the community leader struggling with self-doubt, the Rebbe helped him see his value and impact. When Elie Weisel had lost his ability to feel after the Holocaust, the Rebbe restored his faith in himself and G-d. One person the Rebbe encouraged to become a rabbi; another he steered away from the rabbinate. Out of a genuine love for humanity, the Rebbe aimed to guide each person towards their unique calling.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summed it up well when he said about the Rebbe: "Good leaders create followers; great leaders create leaders."

Whether or not you consider yourself a follower, if you are reading this you have been impacted by his leadership. In honor of the Rebbe, do something extra this week to blossom a little more. Add a Mitzvah. Study a little Torah. Help a friend. Try your best to live up to your unique potential.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

 

Subjective Reality

 

 

June 24, 2022 | Parshat Shelach

It is often hard to distinguish facts from opinion.

I have a pretty diverse social media feed. It never ceases to amaze me how every story can be painted in such different ways by different people - and somehow always in line with their respective views. Everyone is convinced that their spin on the story is an undeniable fact. It is as if there are multiple concurrent realities existing independent of each other.

But this is not a new phenomenon. There's precedent for it in this week's Parsha.

The Jews had sent a delegation of leaders on a mission to scout out the land of Israel in anticipation of their advancement to conquer it. Of the twelve representatives that were sent, 10 came back with a disparaging report (Bamidbar 13:28): "The people who inhabit the land are mighty" and (13:31) "they are too strong for us," and (13:32) "the land eats its inhabitants." The Promised Land, they claimed, was a sham. Only two of the spies -Yehoshua and Calev - firmly disagreed with their colleagues' assessment and encouraged the nation (14:7-8): "The land we passed through to scout is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us."

They had traveled across the same country, seen identical views, and interacted equally with the same locals. These were honest people ("men of distinction" - Bamidbar 13:2) and not suspect of projecting falsehoods to advance their agendas. How did a group of people who had toured the exact same country come back with such different reports? Which group was telling the truth?

The answer is simple and profound. There is no objective reality. We all experience the world around us through the deep-rooted filters of our mind. The spies each had life experiences, philosophical perspectives and spiritual expectations that shaped what they saw. They weren't distorting the facts, nor deliberately fitting them to their agendas. They were honestly describing the situation that they experienced. They all saw the same thing, but they each processed it differently.

Those spies that didn't feel comfortable about the conquest of Israel innately noticed the negatives and legitimately didn't see how or why they would conquer this land. Yehoshua and Calev, who both had profound humility and deep faith in G-d's words, were sure that this was the Promised Land. There was no question in their mind whether this land was appropriate or if conquest was feasible - G-d had told them that it was their destiny to own it.

Where the others saw obstacles they saw opportunity. Where the others noticed pain, they saw potential. While the others questioned if, they only wondered how.

With the gift of hindsight, we can learn from these two great Jewish leaders to shape our vision positively. When we are aware of our own inherent biases that shape our worldview, we can self-correct. Knowing that our minds are shading the reality we experience we can intentionally create positive biases that allow us to experience life with more happiness and fulfillment. We can almost choose our own reality. Developing a kind, positive, and tolerant posture will change the way we see the world and experience life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

 

Breaking Down Religious Hierarchy

 

 

June 17, 2022 | Parshat Beha’alotecha

"If you are a rabbi," a child I was studying with recently asked me, "does that mean you're closer to G-d?"

Every part of our society is hierarchical; in schools and workplaces there are chains of authority; in politics and academics there are people closer to, and further from, the top of the ladder; there are the wealthy who have access to more, and the poor who have those channels closed to them. It's no wonder that the student thought the same about Judaism, that some people have a closer connection with - and deeper access to - G-d than others.

And while it's true of a Jewish community - only the Kohen could serve in the Temple, a rabbi may have religious authority, etc. - nothing could be further from the truth in regards to Judaism itself.

This week's portion talks about Aaron, the high priest, kindling the Menorah. The mystics explain the 7 branches of the candelabra as symbols of the diverse strands within the Jewish community. Each branch symbolized another type of person, with their unique way of thinking, believing and acting.

Every branch of the Menorah carried an equal flame, communicating an important and deep truth. There are many pathways to heaven. The flame, a symbol of a passionate relationship with G-d, can be accessed equally by everyone, regardless of their character, background and path in life.

We can each connect with the Divine with our unique set of qualities and circumstances. Each time we pray, do a Mitzvah or connect to G-d, we ignite the spark that burns bright in our souls and fuel the flame of sacred light.

If one of the branches wasn’t lit, the Menorah wasn’t complete. We need every one to contribute our unique light for our collective Menorah to spread its light and brighten the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

Be Unique, Not Different

 

 

June 10, 2022 | Parshat Naso

Can you imagine what your Instagram feed would look like if every one of your friends posted the exact same pictures?

That's exactly how this week's Torah portion reads. To dedicate the Mishkan (the portable Temple that the Jews had in the desert), the leaders brought elaborate offerings on behalf of their tribes. They all gave the exact same offering, yet Torah lists each one individually, repeating the detailed description for each of the tribes. The redundancy makes this week's reading the longest of the year! Why wouldn't the Torah just say it once and tell us that each tribe brought that offering?

There's a deep lesson embedded here. You don't have to act differently to be unique. You don't have to rebel against the culture to express your individuality. When you invest your energy into something, it will stand out, even if other people are doing the exact same thing.

The leaders all gave the same offering to G-d, yet each one was different. The gifts may have looked the same on the surface, but the unique set of experiences and perspectives that they were brought with made them exceptional.

Going back to the Instagram feed. Imagine if your friends posted those identical pictures, but with different filters, hashtags and captions. That would make for an interesting browse.

This is an important lesson in all areas of our lives, and especially in Judaism. The Mitzvahs seem to try to make us conform, to behave the same way as everyone else: we all pray the same text, eat the same food and observe the same rituals. But nothing can be further from the true intent of Jewish practice. We may be posting the same picture, but with very different filters and hashtags. My prayers and your prayer - although maybe identical on paper - are outpourings of different hearts and souls. Your observance of Shabbat may look the same as mine, but it should feel a lot different. After all, your experience and appreciation of the day of rest is shaped by your life circumstances and experiences, something I'll never have.

Let's embrace our individuality, and appreciate its expression even in the common things we do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

Stronger Together: A Shavuot Message

 

June 3, 2022 | Parshat Bamidbar

A man on his death bed summoned his children around him. Using his last ounces of energy, he handed each one a twig and asked them to break it. The children snapped their twigs with ease. Then he handed out a tied bundle of twigs. “Now,” he said, “please try breaking this bundle.” Despite their best efforts, none of the children succeeded. “You see,” said the father, “as long as you all remain united, nothing can ever break you. But if you decide to be on your own, be aware that a lone person is as feeble as a thin twig.”

This coming Sunday and Monday is the festival of Shavuot, the day G-d gave us the Torah. At Sinai, G-d insisted that everyone be in attendance, from the one-day-old baby to the weak and elderly senior, and everyone in between. In fact, the Midrash says that the souls of all future Jews - including each of us - were there too. Why was this so necessary? Couldn’t those who were there simply relay the message/experience to their families back at home?

G-d was teaching us that for this ‘Jewish idea’ to work it will require that we all do it together, in unison. No one can claim superiority or more rights to the Torah. Nobody can fulfill their G-d-given destiny on their own. We all need the support of the entire Jewish community.

Now more than ever we need to be strong and strengthen each other. Our strength comes from our shared vision, our unified voice, our unbreakable solidarity, and our love and concern for each other.

They say, “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to walk far, walk together!” Let us go far, together. We are one people. Let us stand strong and proud. Let us lead the way in turning this world into a more peaceful and purposeful place.

Here's one practical way of uniting together: Jews across the world will be celebrating Shavuot by re-living the Sinai experience with a Torah reading of the 10 Commandments. Wherever you are, find a synagogue to go to on Sunday morning and unite with your brothers and sisters around the globe. If you are local, please join us at the Dirah Shavuot brunch and ice cream party on Sunday morning where we'll be reading the 10 Commandments. Scroll down for more information.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Menashe

A Spotlight on Lives Lost in Uvalde

 

 

May 27, 2022 | Parshat Bechukosai

There was no mass shooting in Texas this week.

No, I'm not a conspiracy theorist or raving lunatic. My heart is broken over the senseless murders with the rest of the country. But I believe that we should retire “mass shooting” from our lexicon.

The term mass shooting lumps the victims together in one story. It focuses on the murderer and makes him the subject of the story. When our focus is on the victims, on the innocent and beautiful lives that were so viciously taken prematurely, each one is its own world. Each murder is a story of its own. There wasn't a mass murder. There were 21 murders.

This morning I read a short description of each one of the murdered. Each with their own life story, their hopes and dreams, and their own mourning family left behind. It wasn't one story of murder coming out of Uvalde. It was 21 stories.

I don't think that this is pure semantics. There are many factors that share responsibility for the overwhelming amount of violence in this country, but at the core of it all lies a basic lack of respect for others and a lack of appreciation for human life. We are each created in the Divine image. The Talmud teaches that G-d originally created only a single human being to demonstrate that each individual is an entire world. Someone with even the most rudimentary awareness of the infinite value of each and every individual would never dream of harming them.

Yes, we have to decry hate and push for safer laws and policies. But if those are our only reactions, we make the incident about the perpetrator and what we can do to make it more difficult for people like him to do this again.

Instead, we should also channel our outrage to spread the value of life. Instead of speaking about the murderer and his motives, let's share stories about the victims and the lives they could have had. Let's champion life instead of decrying murder. By mourning the loss of life more than the rise of hate, we send a deep message that goes to the root of the problem, inspiring people to not even want to do something similar again.

Most of us aren't in positions of leadership and can't create global change, but each of us can do our part. We can let the people around us know that we value them for who they are and that their lives have meaning. We have to champion the infinite value of human life and spread awareness of its sanctity. We can encourage our children, coworkers, and friends to help others and respect them. We can empower each other to recognize our unique potential to make the world a better place.

It may not seem like a lot, but you never know who is affected by your message and who needs it right now.

May the families of the victims be blessed with comfort, and may we be blessed with peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

The Busyness Trap

 

 

May 20, 2022 | Parshat Behar

Recently, a Bar Mitzvah boy that I was learning with was supposed get back to me about something, and told me: "Rabbi, I'll let you know when, and if, I have a few moments free in my schedule this week." Our society celebrates being busy and it feels like we are always trying to cram more into each day. Even children nowadays are busy, their schedules are filled with every possible activity and enrichment program.

But there's a fine line between being busy and being productive. Being busy doesn't mean you get more done or feel more fulfilled. If anything the opposite is true. Being busy is distracting. When you have so much going on, there's no time to think about what your real priorities and goals are, and how best to achieve them. Not only is it less productive, some of the most important things in life are sacrificed on the altar of busyness: meaningful living and spiritual growth. There's simply no time for them.

Judaism has a built-in mechanism to save us from the busy trap. Every seventh day is a day of rest. A day off from work and pursuits. A day off from being busy. Shabbat is a time to pause and reflect on your place in the world. It is a day to think about the Creator and realign yourself with your vision and goals. It's a day off from outward productivity that allows for inward reflection. Forcing us to take time off is G-d's way of helping us be more spiritually productive.

This week's Torah reading introduces the Shemitah year that takes this idea even further. Every seven years the land had rest and all agricultural work had to stop. Everyone who worked the land (which was what practically everyone did back then) took a sabbatical. (Incidentally, this is actually where the word 'sabbatical' comes from).

While Shemitah is described as the land resting, it was more about the people who worked the land. To protect them from falling into the busyness trap - of working constantly to do more without thinking what the more they want is - G-d instructs the Jews to take a sabbatical and spend time studying Torah and reflecting on life. The gap year gave them a perspective that carried them through the next six years of labor.

This Jewish calendar year is a Shemittah year. In Israel, the land is resting and farmers are taking a year off from their work. We're not farmers, but we can still practice the Shemittah ethic.

We’d be more productive, feel better and be better people if we took some time off from being busy and spent a few moments reflecting on our purpose. A few moments a day for prayer connects us with our source of meaning. A few moments a day of Torah study connects us with our purpose. And, of course, on a weekly basis, celebrating Shabbat anchors us in our life's mission.

Shabbat and Shemittah are gifts that we should accept with open arms.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

Small Steps of Growth

 

 

May 13, 2022 | Parshat Emor

We all have areas of life that need improvement, and although we are aware of them - and want to get better - we have a hard time actually making change.

The problem often is that we look at the big picture of the issue: “I want to be a kinder person,” I want to be more present for my spouse/kids,” or “I want to be more organized.” We want to change ourselves wholesale and the task is too ambitious and daunting. It’s impossible to completely change our personalities and habits overnight, if ever.

This is one of the messages of the Omer count, when we count the time between Passover and Shavuot.

The Torah instructs us to count 7 weeks from after the first Seder night until Shavuot - reflecting our ancestors’ countdown from leaving Egypt to receiving the Torah at Sinai. But then Torah adds that in addition to counting 7 weeks, we should count the days too - 49 days. If it weren’t a whole number - say 6 and a half weeks - I’d understand why the need to count days. But once we are counting 7 complete weeks, why is it a Mitzvah to count the days too?

The counting isn’t just to know when to celebrate Shavuot - it is to prepare ourselves for the special day. Kabbalah divides our personality into 7 character traits or emotions. This is the symbolism of the 7 weeks we count - each week we are meant to be improving in one area of our inner selves as we prepare to re-accept the Torah: the first week is chessed / kindness, the second week is gevurah / discipline etc.

And herein lies the profound lesson of counting the days as well as the weeks. It is impossible to approach self-growth in broad terms. Instead we have to break it down into small, manageable steps and tasks. Instead of trying to be a kinder person, consider what I can do today to someone specific that would be kind. Instead of turning into a super-organized person, think about how to structure one particular part of your life.

In this vein, instead of working on 7 broad areas of character, we break each of the 7 areas of our personality into smaller subgroups. And each day, we work on one small area of growth.

Small and gradual steps work to incrementally grow and improve, until you become a better person. Try it for 49 days - growing a little each day - and you’ll see remarkable results.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Do You Have a Mentor?

 

 

May 6, 2022 | Parshat Kedoshim

"Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to add it to a fruit salad."

We live in an era of information. Thanks to Twitter we know everything that is going on in the world - and virtually everyone’s reaction to it - in real-time. Thanks to Wikipedia we can pull up everything there is to know about any subject. Thanks to Google we can find answers to any question we have in seconds. Thanks to Facebook and Instagram we know more than we need to about our friends’ lives.

But what do we do with this information? How should we process it to make sense of the world and figure out our lives? How do we utilize it to make the world a better place? Information is a very powerful machine - but until it's "switched on" and guided with direction, it is pretty useless.

This is the role of wisdom. The Hebrew word Torah comes from the word "Hora'ah" which means guidance. Torah is a source of wisdom that gives life context and purpose and provides meaningful direction. When you invest time studying Jewish texts, you discover that they provide a wellspring of guidance and inspiration on just about every topic and decision.

But we naturally have an inbuilt bias. We see things from our personal vantage point and have a hard time seeing the context beyond that. Even with the spiritual guidance of Torah, we easily end up slanting the texts to conform to our agenda.

There’s a custom to study Ethics of Our Fathers in the six weeks between Passover and Shavuot - one chapter a week. This past Shabbat I was studying the first chapter and one of the teachings caught my attention: “Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a mentor (Avot 1:6).” Everyone needs someone to guide and direct them.

The role of a mentor - be it a parent, teacher, rabbi, friend, or whoever else - is not to impart knowledge, but to provide the context to contextualize the knowledge we intake and harness is to guide our choices. We need someone to look up to that can give us a moral compass and a meaningful context to navigate our lives.

Let's spend less time searching for knowledge, and more time seeking wisdom. Start by exploring the vast wealth of Torah resources out there - and find yourself a mentor to guide you on this wisdom journey.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe

Love Isn’t Everything

 

 

April 29, 2022 | Parshat Acharei Mot

Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Jewish sages, famously commented that "Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)" is "the most foundational principle in Torah."

But not everyone agreed with him. His student and colleague, Shimon Ben Azai, argued that the most important verse was the passage in Genesis that describes the inherent worth of every human being as created in the Divine image: “in the likeness of God He created him (Genesis 5:1)”. In this view, respecting your neighbor, as a reflection of the Divine image, is more important than loving them.

The limits of Rabbi Akiva’s position actually played out in his lifetime. Between Passover and Shavuot every year is a period of national mourning (we don't have weddings, haircuts, etc.) to commemorate the tragic death of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva. Tradition has it that the spiritual cause of this calamity was the lack of respect that the students had for one another. Imagine that: The students of Rabbi Akiva, the archetype of love for each person, had such disrespect for each other as to be deserving of paranormal punishment.

Loving someone doesn't always lead to respecting or tolerating them. In fact, the opposite can be true. We each see things our own way and often can't appreciate that someone else may have a different, and equally valid, approach. Loving each person like yourself can lead you to project your feelings and experiences on them and want them to fit your vision for them. Rabbi Akiva's students felt so strongly for their convictions and loved their colleagues so deeply that they wanted them to see things the "right way", i.e. their way.

I've noticed this a lot as a parent. When I have a way of thinking about something or doing something, I want my children to follow the way I do it and envision them following the path that I pave for them. My loving instinct is to try to fit them into the mold I envision for them, for their benefit of course. But my children don't always think like me. They are their own people and have their own personalities and ideas.

Herein lies Ben Azai's profound addition. Besides loving each person, you have to also respect them. Every human being is created in G-d's image and is deserving of profound respect. Respecting their infinite value as a reflection of the Divine image leads to appreciating them for who they are and for what they bring to the table.

When interacting with my children, I have to keep reminding myself of Ben Azai's principle: they too are created in G-d's image, and I have to respect their unique personalities and perspectives.

Rabbi Akiva's and Ben Azai's views are not mutually exclusive. We can, and should, love every person while also respecting them. My role as a parent is to lovingly nurture my children's distinctive personas in the best possible direction. Each of our roles as members of society is to lovingly go out of our way to do everything for another person while respectfully listening to them about what their needs are.

May our love and respect undo the tragedy of this time period and transform the mourning to joy with Moshiach.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Splitting the Sea of Our Consciousness

 

 

April 21, 2022 | Tonight through Saturday celebrates the “Second Days” of Passover

Does it ever happen to you, that you see someone all the time, but when you finally get to know them they suddenly look different? Your newfound understanding and appreciation of them alters the way you see them, changing their face and transforming their whole demeanor. This is exactly what the second half of Passover is about.

Passover is a commemoration of the past, an experience in the present and also a hope for the future. According to the Chassidic mystics, the first half of Passover commemorates a redemption of the past - the Exodus from Egypt - and the second half - when we commemorate the splitting of the sea - celebrates the future redemption.

The miracle of the splitting of the sea was not only utilitarian. Contrary to public perception, the Jews never actually crossed the Sea of Reads. They arced back and disembarked on the same side as they had entered. So the goal wasn't purely practical, but spiritual. At the sea, the Jews had a transcendent experience of the Divine, where, according to the Talmud, the simplest Jew saw what even the greatest prophets did not. The sea splitting was a material reflection of this experience.

The land and sea are metaphors for our consciousness. Generally, we see the world through our limited earthly vision. We are stuck in a "dry land" materialistic reality of ego and jealousy that is plagued with poverty and illness, war and hate. Judaism is an attempt to liberate the world from this experience and promote an immersive "sea" reality - a divine consciousness that alters our perception of ourselves, others and the entire world. Each Mitzvah is a partial splitting of the sea, drawing back the shades and allowing the divine spirit to seep into our reality. When we truly get to know the inner workings of the world, we see it in an entirely different light. The Messianic age - when the seas of G-d-consciousness are split wide open - is a time when we experience the redeemed world.

While the Jews had left Egypt a week prior, Egypt hadn't left them. The splitting of the sea was intended to schlep them out of their sunken Egyptian mindset and open them up to a higher consciousness, a divine consciousness. The world of the sea - the unknowable sublime divine reality - split open before them, revealing a G-dly vision of the world, and created a new dry land - new pathways of consciousness. The Jewish people then had a fleeting experience of the Messianic age.

Each year on its anniversary, we remember this and attempt to make that momentary experience an established reality. There's a beautiful custom established by the Baal Shem Tov to finish Passover with the Meal of Moshiach - a 'Seder' of sorts, to harness the spirit of freedom and redemption of Passover and channel it as a force of positive change in the world. We translate the Exodus of the past into the present and work on creating a better future - a redeemed world, where we are liberated from jealousy and hate, poverty and illness, ego and anxiety.

We will be joining Chabad of Park Slope for a Moshiach Meal on Shabbat, April 23, for an evening of song, storytelling, and insights, and enjoy a home-cooked dinner with Matzah and wine (see details below).

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Memory, Not History

 

 

April 15, 2022 | This Shabbat is Passover

Tonight, millions of Jews around the world will sit down at the Seder table and recount the ancient story of the Exodus from Egypt. But if we pay close attention to the traditional text of the Haggadah, we can conclude that it is not the ancient history that we are interested in, but the experience of being Jewish in the present.

Instead of reading the original detailed story as it is recounted in Exodus, the author of the Haggadah decided to complicate things and quote a concise version of the story and expound on it to extract the complete story-line. The chosen text is from a declaration that Jews would make when they offered the first fruits (Bikurim) in the Temple. Each word of the brief declaration is analyzed in the Haggadah until the details can be understood. Wouldn't have made more sense to read it from the original source where the story is straightforward?

The story as recounted in Exodus is recorded in the objective third-person voice of a narrator; it is telling the story from the point of view of history. But the declaration made at the time of presenting Bikurim is the personal expression of the fruit-bearing Jew. It tells the story from the recollection of the Jew who experienced the Exodus.

The Exodus narrative is a record of Jewish history; the Bikurim narrative is a record of Jewish memory.

By telling the story through the voice of personal experience, the Haggadah is teaching us a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Judaism is not a history, theology or philosophy - it is a way of life. We don't learn about Judaism, we experience it. We don't believe in the Torah, we live it. On Pesach eve we don't tell over the story as it happened but the way we, the Jews, remember it.

Judaism is not a story about our past, it is the narrative of our present. The ancient stories are valuable inasmuch as they shape our minds and lives in the here and now.

As you sit tonight at the Seder, spend a few moments to reflect on the role Judaism plays in your life and how the Exodus story can be translated into your own personal experience.

Chag Samaeach and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Do One Thing - It’s a Big Deal!

 

 

April 8, 2022 | Parshat Metzorah

A philanthropist once approached the Lubavitcher Rebbe with a large sum of money that he proposed donating to a worthy cause, but with one proviso: “Rebbe, I want it to go towards a groiser zach (Yiddish for a big project).”The Rebbe, who oversaw plenty of causes that needed funding, urged the man to donate the funds to Chabad Rabbis who would buy and distribute Shmura matza to the Jews of their respective communities.The magnate was unpersuaded. “No, Rebbe, you’ve misunderstood me. I want it to go towards something permanent and substantial. Something that will last for a long time. You know, like a building that will carry my name.”The Rebbe’s reply was brief but classic. “If you want a building, there are plenty of other communities where they’ll be happy to build a fancy building, but if you ask me, what I call a ‘groiser zach’, it’s making sure that one more Jew has a Shmura matza for the Seder”.The Rebbe was a global Jewish leader who was sought out by dignitaries and politicians, yet he never lost sight of the individual. He cared for each person and believed deeply in the value of a singular act. Every person mattered. Every act counted.In the Rebbe's weltanschauung, one more person having Matzah for their Seder was tantamount to a societal revolution. The small act of the Mitzvah will reverberate with nuclear potential in the person's life and have a cosmic impact. It truly is a big project.This week America will mark Education and Sharing Day, the annual day established by Congress and proclaimed by the President in honor of the Rebbe’s day of birth. This year is particularly important, as it marks 120 years since the Rebbe was born in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. To mark the special occasion, New York state has proclaimed 120 days of Education in the Rebbe's honor.We can all honor the Rebbe’s legacy this week. In his honor, let’s pledge to do one more good act - one Mitzvah - and that can have infinite impact. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong: That’s one small act for man, one giant impact for mankind.

There’s an online campaign, where Jews around the world are pledging a Mitzvah in the Rebbe’s honor. If you have been inspired or touched by the work we do or by Chabad’s efforts elsewhere, consider paying it forward by pledging a Mitzvah here: www.onemitzvah.org.

To honor this milestone and further the Rebbe's impact and vision, Dirah will be providing Shmurah Matzah to 120 homes in the community. This "big project" will inspire tens of Seders and grant hundreds of people the opportunity to enjoy the authentic, hand-baked Matzah at their Seder, with the potential to ignite 120 homes with the fire of Jewish faith and endurance. Claim yours here.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

The Human Spring

 

 

April 1, 2022 | Parshat Tazria with a special reading of Parshat Hachodesh

Spring is in the air. It's such a pleasure to walk down the street on the warmer days when you can sense the season on people's faces and in their voices. Everyone seems happier and more chirpy. It's as if the human soul is a tree - it opens up and buds with excitement as the warm weather comes.

There's a little-known blessing made during the Spring season. It expresses the experience of rebirth and highlights the beauty of nature. The blessing is recited in the presence of a fruit-bearing tree during the Jewish month of Nissan, which begins tomorrow (on Shabbat). It thanks G-d, "Who has made nothing lacking in His world, and created in it good creations and good trees to give mankind pleasure."

I love this blessing and look forward to it each year. It is packed with so many meaningful meditations and imparts a sense of wonder at the perfection of nature. It is perfectly poised to harness our excitement for the new blossoms and the transcendent experience of beauty and channel them towards spiritual awareness. The closer we pay attention to the world around us, the closer we come to G-d.

Like the trees around us, we too are created perfectly in G-d's image. We have a budding potential to live life to its fullest. Our souls lack nothing.

Sometimes we go through a patch of winter and don't see the immense purpose or value in our life. We lack energy and color. We don't experience beauty. We don't see our work bearing fruits. But inevitably spring will come when we experience a rejuvenation. Our potential, that we had all along, blossoms. Our lives become colorful and animated. We burst with motivation and purpose.

These Spring moments help us realize what we had under the surface all along, waiting to burst forth. They open our eyes to who we really are and what we were created to achieve. They help us recognize that G-d truly "made nothing lacking in His world, and created in it goodly creatures."

As the flowers begin to blossom around us, let's utilize the season of growth and work on seeing ourselves and others through its lens, valuing the amazing potential and infinite worth within of every individual. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

 

The Holistic Diet

 

 

March 25, 2022 | Parshat Shmini with a special reading of Parshat Parah

Organically grown. Ethically sourced. Pesticide free. Farm to table. Natural ingredients. No added preservatives. Non-GMO verified. No MSG or trans-fat. These labels scream out to you wherever you look in a grocery store.

We are more conscious than ever of the food we put in our mouth. We care not only about the quality and taste of the finished product, but also about the process it underwent to get onto our plates. Our modern sensibilities recognize how and where our food is sourced and processed effects our health and well-being, as well as the environment and society. So we take a close look at the food labels before we make any purchase.

But there's another label to look for if you're conscious about a holistically balanced diet: a kosher symbol.

Judaism takes food certification one step further. Not only does it track the quality of the food and the process that it undergoes, it is concerned with the nature of the foods themselves. Like the old adage says, you are what you eat. Torah believes that the character of the original ingredients impact the consumer. The laws of Kosher may sound like an archaic diet plan, but according to the Jewish mystics, they reflect a progressive and holistic culinary approach.

All animals and plants have a soul - a personality and character that is embodied in the food that is made from them. Besides nutrients that energize our body, foods have a spirit that energizes our souls. Some animals have an energy that promotes violence, anger and ego. Eating products made from them triggers these troubling traits in the person and is detrimental to emotional and spiritual well-being. Other foods are made up of a more positive character and contain positive energy, that we can benefit from through consuming them.

Kosher laws are designed to navigate the complex spiritual world of food. For a spiritually balanced life, Torah provides a strict framework of Kosher dietary guidelines to help avoid eating foods that embody negative character and encourages us to digest foods that provide an energy that promotes spiritual health and sensitivity.

So if you're concerned about keeping a balanced diet, look out for the kosher labels too. They'll add an integrated spiritual component to your healthy lifestyle.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Another Day of Purim?

 

 

March 18, 2022 | Parshat Tzav

Its the morning after Purim and I am trying to collect my thoughts. It was an incredible Purim at Dirah - our first one - and I am so thankful to G-d and to all the people that joined and helped make it so special. From the full room of wonderful people who came together to hear the Megillah on Wednesday night to the more than 100 homes that we visited to deliver Mishloach Manot gifts, to the amazing Community Purim Celebration - it was so beautiful to celebrate together with the community.

But that was yesterday, and now it’s today. The past is only meaningful in as much that it shapes the present and the future. More important than what happened yesterday is who you are today because of what happened. That’s where the second day of Purim comes in.

Purim is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated on different dates in different places. Walled cities, including Jerusalem, celebrate Purim a day after the rest of the world, in what is known as Shushan Purim. Shushan was the capital of Persia in the Purim story, where the battle to defend Jewish lives raged an extra day. To commemorate that, Mordechai instituted that walled cities, similar to Shushan, celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar instead of the 14th.

When I was studying in Israel, my friends and I made sure to celebrate two days of Purim. We spent the first day of Purim in the north of Israel and traveled back to Jerusalem for its Purim the following day.

I'm no longer living in Israel, and I don't know if I can handle two days of Purim anymore. But even outside of the walled cities, Shushan Purim is marked as a special day. It’s not a full-fledged Purim, but it serves an important function.

Shushan Purim is a day to reflect on the holiday that was and feel the effects it had on us. The word Shushan is etymologically related to the Hebrew word meaning rose, Shoshana. A flower is beautiful, but it is pretty small; it’s fragrance, though, spreads around the room.

Like a rose, the greatness of Purim is encapsulated in the smell it gives off. Shushan Purim is when we smell the perfume of Purim. When we no longer have the thing itself but still access it through the fragrance it left behind.

We’re not wearing costumes today, but we can still feel as free to be ourselves as we did when we were disguised. The party is over, but the joy and friendships remain. The Megillah is not being read again, but the messages of the story are still on our minds. Purim itself has passed, but its inspiration is still with us.

Purim is one day of the year, but having a day on the calendar earmarked for post-Purim reflection ensures that we walk away from the holiday uplifted and invigorated. It helps carry the Purim spirit and joy into the rest of the year. The fragrance of Purim may smell differently for different people, but let’s all take the joy, community, and spirit of Purim and inject it into our post-Purim lives.

Happy Shushan Purim and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Should We Cancel Purim This Year?

 

 

March 11, 2022 | Parshat Vayikra

There’s a war raging in Ukraine with millions of people displaced or in fear of their lives. A threat of a world war is looming over our heads. How should we be reacting?

This has been bothering me over the past couple of weeks. How can we go about our lives regularly while the world faces upheaval and crisis? I posed this question to the students of the Meditation from Sinai course that we concluded this week: Didn’t it feel strange to be sitting and discussing spirituality and growth while people are fighting for their lives across the ocean?

Yet, it seems that despite our interest in the war in Ukraine, and despite the funds that we donate, we are going about our lives business as usual. Our daily routines are unchanged.

I’ve been asking myself the same question about Purim. Is it appropriate to celebrate Purim right now, when the world is going through so much pain? Perhaps, I have been wondering, we should cancel Purim this year? Or, at the very least, tone down the celebrations?

As these thoughts were swimming through my mind last week, the venue that we had rented for Dirah’s Purim celebration messaged me they had to cancel our booking for reasons they couldn't discuss. Even when I pressed, they refused to give an explanation why.

Was this a sign that we should cancel Purim this year? Perhaps this was G-d sending me a message. Maybe a Purim celebration isn’t appropriate right now. I wasn't sure.

As we scrambled to find a new venue and I continued to mull over this question, an answer dawned on me from the Purim story itself.

Purim is a story of faith in the face of crisis. The Jews in Persia did not submit to the terror of Haman, and instead remained committed to G-d despite the threat of their annihilation. And when they refused to be shaken, everything turned around.

Everything that seemed certain and stable was revealed not to be. The king who hated the Jews discovered his queen was one and began to favor them. Haman who wielded undisputed authority in Persia and built gallows to hang the Jewish leader was deposed and hanged on that very gallows. Royal messengers who advertised a day designated to slaughter Jews were dispatched to spread a message of support to the Jewish people. G-d is missing from the story, yet He is behind every part of it. Purim is a celebration of irony. Its slogan is Venahapoch Hu - everything was turned upside down.

And perhaps a Purim celebration is the irony we need right now. To celebrate despite the darkness in the world. To trudge on in the face of despair. To laugh despite the pain. To have faith when all hope seems lost. To find G-d when He is hidden.

The Purim story teaches us that when we act this way, we create a new reality. We show that the evil forces that seem overbearing are not. We reveal stability in an unstable world and the instability of the terror that seems stable.

So, I concluded that the show must go on. We should celebrate Purim this year. Perhaps with even more enthusiasm than other years. And, thankfully, we found a new venue for the Community Purim Celebration to support that. Please join us at 5:15 on Thursday, March 17 at Hannah Senesh Day School (342 Smith St.) for a Purim celebration for the ages.

We hope and pray that G-d will respond in kind with Purim miracles - when in an instant darkness was turned to light and sadness to joy.

Shabbat Shalom / Peaceful Shabbat,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Think About Yourself A Little More

 

 

March 3, 2022 | Parshat Pekudei

There's a common attitude that the most important thing for the religious person to think about is G-d. It's not true.

Consider this: This week's reading continues with the account of the building of the portable Temple--the Mishkan--that the Jews build in the desert. So much detail is given surrounding this building effort, making it perhaps the longest narrative in the whole Torah. To put it in context, only 34 verses are dedicated to G-d's creation of the world, while hundreds of verses are used to describe the Jews' creation of the Mishkan. Why would that be?

Here’s one idea: For G-d to create the entire universe isn't a great feat, and the way he created it is quite frankly not of our concern. For us to infuse that universe with holiness is a tremendous achievement, and the way we can do that is our business.

G-d is omnipotent and omniscient. He doesn't need our approval or help. He doesn't really need our subservience either. To marvel at G-d's greatness and strength is to belittle Him. The Creation narrative is His business, not ours.

Where we fit in to the picture, our role in this world, has to concern us. We have to constantly ask ourselves how we can rise above our mortal, temporary lives and connect with an eternal truth. We have to concern ourselves with our own behavior, and try to forge a relationship with G-d. Do we give enough charity? Are we kind to people? Are we committed to a moral lifestyle? Are we dedicating our time to the pursuit of something larger than ourselves? We have to challenge ourselves to live deeper and connect higher. That's what Judaism is. It doesn't try to change G-d, it changes us and our lives. It doesn't make G-d greater, it makes the world greater.

The Jews building a home for G-d was the realization of this vision. They uplifted the materials they used to be part of a Divine structure. They created a place on Earth where G-d's presence was experienced, a microcosm of what we are achieving in the world at large. It was the human effort to construct a better world.

So what's the most important thing for the religious person to think about? Themselves.

At this moment, with the situation in Ukraine deteriorating, we have to step up to the plate. It isn't enough to just think about the people of Ukraine and feel pity for them, we have to do our part and help out in any way we can. We have to focus on how we can help them. Whether that means giving financial support, prayer or any other opportunity that we may have - let’s invest what we can to help. Let’s think about ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom / Peaceful Shabbat,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Being a Light in this Dark Moment

 

 

February 25, 2022 | Parshat Vayakhel

We are living through history. A dark moment of history. The war on Ukraine is unsettling and terrifying. And there's really no way of knowing what will come next.

Although I have never been there, I feel a closeness to the people of Ukraine. Chabad has strong roots there (the Rebbe was born there) and there are over 250 Chabad centers across the country.

I messaged a friend of mine who is a Chabad rabbi in Kyiv (Kiev) to see how he was doing and to offer support. He told me about the sirens and bombs, and the selfless and courageous work he and his colleagues were doing for the community through it all.

What took me most about his message were the first and last words. His opening words were (he wrote them in Hebrew): ברוך ה' בסדר/Thank G-d, we are alright. And he ended his message saying: מקווה לטוב בעזרת השם/We are hopeful for a good outcome, with G-d's help.

In spite of everything going on around him, his faith in G-d was unrelenting.

______

I visited a Shiva house this week and shared a thought about the opening Mishna in the Talmud. There's a Jewish tradition to study Mishna (the compendium of collected law) in memory of a deceased - Mishna shares the same Hebrew letters as Neshama.

The first Mishna discusses the latest time one can say the Shema in the evening. Of all the important Jewish laws and values, this seems like a strange choice of where to start the Talmud from.

Turning to the mourners, I suggested that this law gives hope and strength to those who suffered a loss and encapsulates what it means to be a Jew.

Shema is the declaration of our faith in G-d: Hear O Israel, The L-rd Is Our G-d , The L-rd Is One.

It is natural to say the Shema during the "day". When life is bright and things are going well, it is easy to be thankful and have faith in G-d.

It is difficult to place our trust in G-d when we don't sense rhyme or reason or when we face challenges or witness suffering. But real faith means to trust wholly in G-d when things are dark and difficult, during the "night" moments of our lives.

This is the deeper meaning of this Mishna which teaches that we have to say Shema in the evening: We have to find ways to affirm and commit to our faith in the overwhelming darkness of tragedy.

And this is the opening law of the Jewish code, which sets the tone for the entirety of Jewish life. The foundation of Jewish continuity and survival is our ability to say "Shema" during the "night"; our ability to counter fear with faith, tragedy with trust, and suffering with solace.

________

We are witnessing a unique "night". The war in Ukraine has cast a shadow over the entire world. But we have to remain hopeful and have faith in G-d. Leaning deeply into our faith provides us with powerful weapons in our arsenal that we can deploy to help the situation. Prayer. Charity. Mitzvot. These are tools that G-d has given us to actualize our faith and imprint it onto the world to create real change.

The conclusion of the Mishna is that we may say the evening Shema "until the morning rises". I think the deeper meaning of this is that when we say Shema at night we are confident that the morning isn't far away. The faith we display in the darkness brings the light of the new day.

Shabbat Shalom / Peaceful Shabbat,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

A Tribute to a Special Woman

 

 

February 18, 2022 | Parshat Ki Sisa

Last week, we lost a giant. “Bubby Hecht” passed away at 95. Our grandmother, Rebbetzin Chave Hecht, was such a loving force in our lives and a powerful force in the broader community.

She had over 400 descendants but knew each one personally. She had a personal relationship with each of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, and kept up where they were in the world and what they were doing. Yet when we were with her, she treated each of us as if we were the only ones.

Beyond her family, which was everything to her, Bubby Hecht was Jewish heroine, leader and matriarch. She was an educator and leader whose legacy and impact spanned generations. Until her final years, she oversaw NCFJE, a Jewish non-profit with a multi-million dollar budget. She founded Camp Emunah, a summer camp for girls in 1953, which she directed for 70 years - right until her passing.

She was a teacher and an empowering light of inspiration within her community. When Chabad sent a delegation to meet with President Obama in 2015 to mark Education and Sharing Day, U.S.A., in honor of the birth date of the Rebbe, she was chosen to represent. But if you had met her, you wouldn’t have known any of that.

She had time for everyone and would greet each person with her soft smile and a patient listening ear.

Bubby was a rare combination of kindness and strength. She was incredibly warm and loving yet didn’t like to tolerate nonsense. She loved and accepted everyone for who they were, but was unwavering in her values. Her work ethic was legendary but she didn’t impose it on everyone else. She was a passionate achiever but carried herself with humility.

The two primary paradigms that we have for leadership in the Torah are the brothers Moses and Aharon.

Moses was a teacher. He was the lawmaker and judge; he led with the force of his Divine authority, imposing the law of G-d on the people. Aaron was kind and nurturing. As High Priest, his role was to help the people express their deep spirituality and connect to the Divine. Moses held the law above all else; Aaron's guiding principles were love and compassion. Moses led with rigid truth; Aaron was prepared to lie for the sake of people's welfare and happiness.

This week we read one example of their differences. When the people wanted to create the Golden Calf, Aaron didn’t know how to put his foot down and say no. So he tried to stall them instead, but his plans didn’t work out; his soft kindness was actually partly to blame for the greatest fiasco in Jewish history. By contrast, when Moses got wind of what was happening he smashed the Divinely inscribed Tablets in front of their eyes, protesting their actions in the greatest possible way.

Two brothers. Two great leaders. Two very different personalities. Each epitomized their unique character.

As individuals, we have to try our best to bridge those two personalities and balance them. Bubby Hecht will be remembered as a woman who did just that. Her wonderful legacy of the organizations and camp she built and of her large and diverse family that she nurtured are testament to her unique and impactful life.

I hope that we can follow in her path and continue to learn from her.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

P.S. You can read more about her fascinating life here: Legendary Rebbetzin Chave Hecht, 95, Life-Long Woman of Action.

Life’s Playbook

 

 

February 11, 2022 | Parshat Tetzaveh

I grew up in Australia, where football is a very different game to the one played here. We did play "American football" (as we called it) occasionally, but I didn't really know enough about it to appreciate the game. So when I came over to the US, and made friends who were crazed fans, it took me a while to understand what they saw in the continuously-stopping game.

Only once I learned more about the nature of the game and the depth of the tactics did I begin to appreciate it. I realized that the football we played as kids was vastly different to the one being played by the professionals. I learned that the quarterback didn't just throw the ball in the hope of one of the players catching it, he executed a carefully practiced plan involving many of the teammates. I found out that the coach communicated with the players at each break in play and helped them navigate to a win. What seemed as people running in random directions, was actually precisely choreographed plays. I learned that football is a complex game with keen strategy and intelligent plays

I think this learning curve is a great metaphor for Judaism.

Looking at the detailed Mitzvahs and Jewish practices, you could be forgiven thinking that they are superstitious, archaic, crazy, or a host of other things. We wrap strange things on our arms, follow an intense regiment of prayers and blessings, avoid certain foods and behaviors and do a lot of seemingly random things. Our lives keep being interrupted by rituals and we listen to an unseen voice to determine every move we make.

But the astute and educated observer, who understands the "game", knows that each of these rituals has incredible meaning. The Mitzvot are precise plays, with cosmic significance and spiritual depth, that help us grow and connect with something deeper than ourselves.

To navigate this complex playbook, we have the coach's guidance in our ear. The guiding voice of G-d, heard through the Torah, provides a bird's-eye view of the game of life and directs us exactly how to navigate around any opposition.

The detailed laws of Judaism are like strategies and plans that come together to create a drive that moves us forward down the field of life towards the end-zone of a perfected self and redeemed world.

No matter who you are rooting for on Sunday - you are an actual player in the game of life. And in this game, everyone can be a winner.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

What You Get When You Give

 

 

February 4, 2022 | Parshat Terumah

You don't expect the wealthy CEO to go begging on the subway for quarters or the well-endowed college to be door-knocking for collections.

So it's surprising that when G-d wanted to build a home for Himself, he reached out to the Jews to build the Mishkan - portable Temple - in the desert. In fact, in this week’s Parsha we read how He requested that every member of the nation give towards the building fund, and asked for every possible donation.

G-d had all the means in the world at His disposal. He is the master and creator of it all. And there were plenty of wealthy Jews who could have bankrolled the entire operation. Despite all this, G-d wanted everyone's involvement: the poor to donate along with the rich, the simpletons with the elite, the sinners together with the righteous. And He wanted the cheap materials alongside the elaborate donations - requesting copper as well as gold.

With His fundraising efforts, G-d was teaching the Jews an important and powerful lesson.

He was not asking for their involvement for His sake, but for theirs. He didn't need them to give, they did. When a Jew donated towards the building of G-d's home, he or she was privileged to be engaged in a project of cosmic significance. By asking for their help, G-d was providing them with an opportunity to be uplifted and elevated.

When you give charity - of your time, money or resources - you gain as much as you give. Yes, you're helping out the poor person or the non-profit institution, but they are also helping you. The opportunity to invest in the worthy tzedakah cause gives you a chance to live for something higher.

When you give to others you gain a sense of fulfillment and purpose, achieve a heightened spiritual sensitivity and channel G-d's immeasurable blessings.

So next time you are panhandled by an unfortunate stranger on the subway, asked to volunteer for a community event or solicited by a letter in the mail, ignore your initial reaction to hold back. Instead, give what you can and say thank you. Thank them for providing you a chance to touch the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

The Foundational Message of Torah? Be a Mensch!

 

 

January 28, 2022 | Parshat Mishpatim

Judaism is often associated with ritual laws. If someone says that they are not an observant Jew, they probably mean that they don't keep Shabbat or Kosher or wear Tefillin.

But as important as the rituals are, Judaism is actually more than that. It is a way of life that informs every area of our experience. The Torah inspires social action and lays the foundation of a just society. It is supposed to shape our values and ideals. It is remarkable that so many of the values that we hold to be sacred in today's society stem from Judaism: the value of life; the equal worth of every person; the responsibility we have to the poor and vulnerable. These moral truths have thankfully become universally accepted, but are rooted in the Torah.

This week's Torah portion follows last week's description of the giving of the Torah, and is titled "Mishpatim" or "Laws". As its name suggests, it deals primarily with many of the civil laws that Judaism teaches, such as treatment of workers, respect of other's property, and compensation for damages. It is telling that these civil and moral laws--that teach justice, fairness, integrity, and respect--are the first set of laws that are taught following the giving of the Torah.

 

The Midrash suggests a profound message here, that respecting other people and resolving disputes peacefully is the foundation of Judaism: R. Shimon says: Why did Torah detail civil laws before all the other mitzvot of the Torah? For when there is litigation between a man and his neighbor, there is strife between them. Once the ruling has been given, there is peace between them.

Similarly, the sages pointed out that: The ideal of proper behavior preceded Torah. Historically, G-d entered a relationship with our forefathers based on their adherence to a moral code before He gave the Mitzvot of the Torah. Our own attitude should reflect that chronological order; treating others respectfully is the first priority in Judaism. As Rabbi Akiva famously put it: Loving your neighbor as yourself - this is the greatest rule of Torah.

So next time you come across someone who needs your help or a situation where you are tempted to do something that may hurt or wrong someone, remember, that in Jewish tradition, being a mensch is the highest priority. Being an observant Jew should include Shabbat, kosher and tefillin, but it ought to also imply having a compassionate heart and moral compass - being a mensch.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

What I Learned From the Events in Colleyville, TX

 

 

January 21, 2022 | Parshat Yisro

The events from last Shabbat in Colleyville, TX may be fading from the headlines, but they are very present - and deeply etched - in my mind. The image of a rabbi and congregants being held hostage in a synagogue by a rabid antisemite is harrowing. And frightening. And I can't stop thinking about it.

But I don't want to focus on the fear. Or on antisemitism. Or on whether synagogues need more security. No. These are important conversations, but not what's forefront on my mind. My takeaway from this story is not about feeling threatened as a Jew but empowered. Instead of being afraid to attend synagogue this week because of what happened, I want to suggest that we should all make every effort to go.

In this week's Torah reading, we read about the first convert to Judaism. Yisro, Moses' father-in-law and a priest in Midyan, traveled to the desert to join the Jewish nation. What moved him to give up his pampered life of prestige to join a fledgling nomad tribe of recently freed slaves? What inspired the first Jew-by-choice to engage Jewishly?

The Talmud records a number of possibilities.

One rabbi says that he heard about the war with Amalek - a classic case of antisemitism. Amalek didn't attack the Jews for a specific purpose. They weren't conquering or defending any land. They simply hated Jews for no other reason than for being Jews. This was the first instance of blatant and senseless antisemitism. Instead of eliciting fear, however, it inspired Yisro. If a people is being attacked just for existing, there must be something unique and special about them. They must stand for something sublime and holy. Why else would their very presence offend people? Beyond just being an ally, antisemitism inspired Yisro to want to be a part of this Jewish nation.

A second rabbi in the Talmud suggests that Yisro heard about the splitting of the sea. There were many miracles before that, so it must have been something else about the story that moved him. The Jews then were placed between a rock and a hard place, effectively hostages in the desert. After finally fleeing Egypt, the mighty Egyptian army was chasing them down and they had reached an unbreachable body of water. Despite the impossible situation, they placed their firm faith in G-d and jumped into the sea. And when they did so, they saw G-d's hand and sea split for them. G-d rewarded their faith and efforts with miraculous salvation. When he learned about the Jews’ faith coupled with heroic action, Yisro was inspired to join their faith.

A third opinion in the Talmud posits that Yisro was moved to become a Jew after hearing about the giving of the Torah. When he learned about a people who were committing to a higher code - of morality, ethics, and divine ritual - he was moved to be a part of it.

In Colleyville, last Shabbat, all three of these elements were highlighted. We witnessed the depravity of senseless antisemitism. We witnessed the faith of the hostages despite their hopeless situation, and the faith of millions of Jews, and people of all faiths, who prayed to G-d and trusted in His kindness. We witnessed the heroic bravery of the rabbi who relied on G-d and took whatever action he could to bring about G-d's salvation. We witnessed the Kiddush Hashem of the rabbi who pledged to continue living by his Jewish faith - by wearing his Kippah and keeping the Shul doors open.

When Yisro heard about these events, he was moved to become an active Jew. Let's follow his lead and allow these events to move us to greater and deeper Jewish engagement. Let them inspire us to be prouder and stronger Jews. Let's respond to an attack in a synagogue by going to Shul this week.

I'll be in Shul this Shabbat. Will you join me?Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

The One-Word Antidote to Indecision Paralysis

 

 

January 16, 2022 | Parshat Beshalach

In his book Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes about a decision that Steve Jobs made in 1997 that turned Apple around to be profitable: he cut the product inventory by 70%. His theory was that the simpler a product range, the easier it is to make a choice, which equals more sales. One year later, the nearly bankrupt company turned a very healthy $309 million profit.

Jobs’ insight was brilliant. People hate making decisions. When we are confronted with a decision, we often overthink and rethink and get stuck and overwhelmed. In fact, we'll often do nothing just to avoid having to choose something.

Big decisions often paralyze us. But they don't have to.

This week's Parsha picks up the story of the Jews after they left Egypt. The Egyptians regretted letting the Jewish slaves free and gave chase. The recently liberated Jews now found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. In front of them, blocking their escape path, was the formidable Red Sea. Behind them was the quickly advancing mighty Egyptian army.

What should they do? Of course, the Jews couldn't decide. The Midrash tells that there were 4 factions with 4 different plans. One group felt there was no choice but to surrender to the Egyptians and return to slavery. Another felt that the only way out of the predicament was praying to G-d. A third group campaigned to jump into the water and face an easy death. Yet a fourth group wanted to try their luck fighting the Egyptians.

The competing parties couldn't decide on a winner. The Jews were paralyzed by their indecision and came to Moses to ask him what to do, and he, in turn, turned to G-d for direction. G-d's response was profound in its simplicity and still resonates today. He didn't pick a side or make the decision for the Jews. Instead, he offered one word of advice, that continues to resonate today:

"The Lord said to Moses, Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and ‘let them travel’ (Vayiso'u)." Stop pontificating on the best option. Stop debating incessantly over the nuances of each argument. Just move on. Just do something. Go!

We know the ending. Once the Jews put all theories aside and focused on moving forward, doors opened for them that they could not have imagined or anticipated. The sea split and they walked through it on dry land.

This is a message for each of us too. Perfect is the enemy of good. Instead of waiting for inspiration or getting bogged down by a decision, just move forward with something. Take action. Go.

A wrong decision is better than indecision. We'd be better off just choosing something - even if we're not 100% sure about it - over being immobilized by not being able to choose anything. Seas won't always split open for you, but at least you'll have a good shot at success. And you never know - things may just open up for you in ways that you could never have expected.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

The Time-Warping Calendar That Shaped a Nation

 

 

January 7, 2022 | Parshat Bo

The first Mitzvah that the Jews were given - while still slaves in Egypt - was to create a calendar. From that point on, the Jews would measure time based on the cycles of the moon.

There's something unique about how the Jewish lunar calendar worked. The new month was decided on the basis of a 'new' moon, i.e. the reappearance of the crescent of the moon as it begins its new cycle. But here's the catch. They didn't rely on astronomic calculations to determine the moon's cycle. The court (Bet Din) had to receive testimony from witnesses that had seen the reemerging moon and then formally declare a new month.

The calendar was completely given over to the agency of the court. If the court didn't declare a new month until the following day, for whatever reason, or made a mistake in declaring a new month early, their decision stood. They weren't just figuring out the passages of time, they were creating it.

Time itself was warped by the court’s ruling. The sacredness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were determined based on that decision. When to observe Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot depended on the calendar. If the court made a mistake and announced the wrong day to be a new month, the passage of time that marks the sacredness of these days would shift to the new dates affirmed by the court.

The designation of the new month based on the sighting of the moon was a small step for man, but a giant leap for mankind. The sanctity of the Holidays was in effect created by the Jewish community. In essence, the whole structure of Jewish life was handed over to the people to set in place for themselves.

This was the biggest gift G-d gave the soon-to-be liberated people. They would not only be free to calculate time, but to create it. They would control time, and not the opposite. They were empowered to not only follow a path in life dictated by G-d, but to be partners in actualizing His vision.

Our calendar no longer functions this way and is now set according to the mathematics of the moon's cycle, but the message is as relevant as ever. We are empowered by G-d to be partners in creating a better world. We define reality through our actions. When we do Mitzvahs, when we are kind to others, when we sanctify Shabbat through the candles and Kiddush, when we wear tefillin, we create sanctity and take control over our environments. Like the courts did with the calendar, we become masters over time and matter. Our actions have the potency to change the world, to alter its metaphysical makeup which changes the way we experience reality.

Don't underestimate yourself. Do something today that can change the world and shape the very fabric of existence.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Don’t Be Bottlenecked in 2022

 

 

December 31, 2021 | Parshat Va’erah

How often have you decided to do something only to find yourself being too lazy when the time comes for it? How many times have you resolved to share with someone how much they mean to you or tell someone what they have done to hurt you, but didn't follow through? How much of your life is actually in sync with how you want to live and who you want to be?

Chances are that most of us have plans and dreams for 2022. Whether we've verbalized them or not, we have a couple of positive resolutions for the New Year. But what can we do to make sure we follow through? There seems to be an infinite gap sometimes between our minds and our behavior. We have a hard time bridging what we want to do with what we do, turning an idea into action.

In Jewish spiritual texts, this condition is symbolized by the Egyptian slavery. The difference between a slave and a free person is not in the amount of work (think 90-hour-a-week Wall St. jobs) or degree of labor (think restaurant delivery workers on a frigid winter night), but in the control over that work. A slave doesn't get to decide whether or not to work, a free person opts into it. Simply put, a free person is in control while a slave isn't.

Now, when we behave in a way that goes against our better judgment, we have lost control over ourselves. We're being coerced by unwanted forces to do things we don't want to or not to do the things we want. In those moments, we are slaves to our impulses, habits, and laziness.

Kabbalah traces the root of this psychological imprisonment to the neck. In Jewish mysticism, the body form mirrors the soul makeup. The brain is in the top region of the body because it houses the mind, the dominant force of consciousness. The soul consciousness flows downwards from the mind (wisdom/judgment) to the heart (emotions) and from there to the body (behavior). The narrowness of the neck that divides the head from the body is the bottleneck where the decisions of our minds get stuck on their way down to the heart and body.

It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word for neck, oref (ע-ר-פ), has the same letters as Pharoah (פ-ר-ע-ה), the mastermind of the Egyptian slavery. Like our ancestors in Egypt, we all experience Pharoah's slavery - an inability to lead lives of integrity and have a seamless transition from thought to action. The mind-self loses control over the body-self.

Thankfully, we also have a Moses within that can help us escape this sentence. We have a soul that is charged with an insatiable desire to find meaning and achieve a positive impact. The Moses within is driven to implement our ideas and follow through on the conclusions of the mind. Giving your soul a voice in your head can turn the neck from a blockage to a filter.

So here's some unsolicited New Year's advice: on top of the specific goals and resolutions you have for the New Year, commit to spending some time nurturing your soul and empowering your inner Moses. Consider committing to a study session, a few moments of daily prayer, or a Mitzvah that is going to empower your inner Moses. The small acts of positivity will shift your disposition and help the rest of your mind's ideas flow through to your behavior.

Free yourself from the inner slavery and make this coming year your best one yet!

Happy New Year and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

For Better Relationships, Take Off Your Shoes

 

December 24, 2021 | Parshat Shemot

You can't experience intimacy with your shoes on.This is not some wacky relationship advice, but the message that G-d teaches to Moses in this week's Torah reading.

When Moses encountered the burning bush, G-d instructed him to remove his shoes because "the place on which you stand is holy ground." This idea is also echoed in Jewish ritual, when the Kohen is instructed to serve in the holy Temple barefoot.

The common understanding of the need to discalceate (it's a real word - Google it!) is out of respect for a holy space. But there's an alternative understanding that de-shoeing (not a real word) is not so much about the place, but about the person. Taking off your shoes is a prerequisite for having a sacred experience.

Shoes are designed to protect you from the environment. A shoe forms a barrier between the person wearing it and the potential hazards of the world beyond them. Shoes, then, symbolize the safety barriers we erect between ourselves and the world.

Walls protect, but they also divide. The defenses that we put up to protect ourselves also disconnect us from the people and places around us.

When Moses approached the sacred space of the burning bush, G-d told him that if he wanted to experience the holiness of the moment he had to put down his guard. He had to remove his shoes and step out of his comfort zone. He couldn't intimately communicate with G-d from within his own paradigm. Bearing his soles was a symbol of bearing his soul.

We may never encounter a burning bush, but we can learn from Moses' experience. Every Mitzvah is an opportunity to encounter G-d. By letting go of our own agendas and egos - removing our shoes - we can transform the moments of prayer, the acts of kindness, the observance of Shabbat and any other divine act into intimate sacred experiences.

And if we want to build deep relationships with our spouses, children, or friends, we have to be willing to step out of our own mindset and empathize - wholly experience the other person in the place that they are at. That requires letting down our guard and allowing ourselves to be present and vulnerable. To experience intimacy we have to be barefoot.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

The End of the Beginning

 

 

December 17, 2021 | Parshat Vayechi

There's a tipping point in team building when individuals merge into a collective. It's a magical moment when the group combines to create something bigger than any one of them. But it doesn’t happen on its own; it takes strength, commitment, and support.

This transition shifts the point of gravity. As individuals, each team member is concerned with themselves and is competing against the others. There's competition and discord. But as a team, they look out for each other and work together.

In the Biblical narrative, this is the transition between the Books of Genesis and Exodus. In the first book of the Torah, the emerging Jewish people are individuals. It is the stories of individual members of a singular family. Perhaps this is why Genesis is full of sibling rivalries and family feuds. As individuals, differences were fought over, not reconciled. In the second book, the children of Israel grow into a collective and develop into a nation. They become bound by a shared fate and destiny.

This process begins to take shape in the final portion of Genesis that we read this week, where we encounter, for the first time, a family that lives in harmony. Joseph's children, Menashe and Efraim, are the first siblings in the Torah to get along. And by the end of the reading, even Joseph and his brothers reconcile their differences and make up. At the end of Genesis, the seeds are planted for community and nationhood.

This is the end of the beginning of the story, and the birth of the next chapter in Jewish history. As a family of individuals is about to emerge into a nation, they and develop into a team, when each part is only as strong as the whole.

And when we read the yearly cycle of Torah, we recognize the challenge of new beginnings. When we conclude the Parsha this week, the final one in the book of Genesis, we declare “chazak, chazak, venischazek - be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen each other.” We support and strengthen each other at this crucial moment of transition from Genesis to Exodus, from individuals to a collective.

In some respects, I feel that we are going through this transition right now at Dirah. In the 10 months since we launched, we have provided so many meaningful Jewish experiences. From explanatory High Holiday services to Hebrew to You lessons, from putting up Mezuzahs to helping people put on Tefilin, from classes to private study sessions - hundreds of individuals have been touched and inspired.

As we continue to grow and gather support, the seeds of community are beginning to sprout. It hit me a couple of weeks ago when over two hundred neighbors came together a couple of weeks ago for the Menorah lighting at Carroll Park, to celebrate Chanukah as a community. That moment signified to me the end of the beginning chapter of our organization. A new chapter of our growth is emerging, where a group of individuals is being transformed into a collective, and a community is taking shape.

At this crucial moment in our community's growth, we reach out to you for strength and support. In 2021 Dirah lit a spark of community. Now it’s time to fuel the flames and make the fire roar in 2022. Please consider joining our end-of-year campaign to fuel our growth in the new year.

With deep gratitude and wishes for a Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

You Are Not A Victim

 

 

December 10, 2021 | Parshat Vayigash

Take a moment and think of the things in your life that bother you: the relationships that are complicated, the circumstances that are holding you back, the embarrassing character flaws, and your financial/emotional/health stresses. Now take another moment to think about who is to blame for them. I’m sure it's not hard to identify someone.

The problem is, that even when this finger-pointing is justified, it is counterproductive. Blaming others is a subconscious attempt to alleviate yourself from the burdens of your problems, but it actually ends up making them worse. By having a victim mindset, you render yourself powerless to change anything. Instead of shirking from the problem, you cement its place in your life.

The first step to creating positive change is taking ownership of your problems and weaknesses. Because even if someone else really is to blame, you're the one suffering.

The Biblical figure Joseph exemplified this character. He had every reason to feel like a victim. His brothers sold him into slavery - after coming close to murdering him. Because of them, he spent more than a decade as a slave and prisoner in a foreign country, alienated from his family and friends.

But somehow he thrived as both a slave and prisoner, receiving promotions and praise and eventually earning the highest office in the nation after Pharoah. He is the only person in Torah to be described as successful. He managed all that because instead of being a victim he recognized what had happened to him was by divine design. Instead of blaming others, he took ownership over his life's direction.

Nowhere is this more profoundly expressed than when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers after more than 20 years of estrangement. Instead of lashing out at them, he calmed them and said: "But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you... And now, you did not send me here, but G-d, and He made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord over all his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt."

He explained that the only reason he got this far in life is that he didn't bear a grudge against them. His success was credit to his ability to take control of his life and not shift the blame and responsibility. His acknowledgment that "you did not send me here, but G-d" is what led him to be "a father to Pharaoh, a lord over his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt."

Now go back and think about those uncomfortable parts of your life. But instead of thinking about who to blame, accept them as G-d-sent and think of ways to change them yourself. Just like Joseph, you'll be happier and far more successful.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

The Carroll Park Shamash Thief

 

 

December 3, 2021 | Parshat Miketz and Chanukah

I am still on a high from Chanukah at Carroll Park. We were overwhelmed and inspired by the incredible show of community on Wednesday night. Close to 200 people packed into Carroll Park to celebrate Chanukah and light up the neighborhood with the lighting of the beautiful LED menorah.

At the Menorah lighting, I mentioned that someone had taken one of the Menorahs candles and spoke about the lesson we can learn from that about power of the light to overcome darkness and how each of us can be a that force of light in the world. Here is a letter I penned to the “Shamash thief”:

To the person who stole the Shamash from our community Menorah,

Thank you. You inspired me.

While there's no excuse for the damage you did to the Menorah -and I hope you have a change of heart and return the stolen light - you taught me and the community a profound lesson.

You may not know this, but after learning of your heinous act this Wednesday, I complimented you later that night at our neighborhood Menorah lighting.

You see, when I found out about your brazen theft, I was hurt and annoyed. Why would someone deface such a beautiful symbol of light and unity? Who would stoop so low? But after thinking it over, it dawned on me that you were onto something and (perhaps unwittingly) personified a profound message of the Menorah lights.

Chanukah is celebrated in the winter when the nights are getting longer and the world is becoming colder and darker. The lights of the Menorah are lit in the evening, as the darkness of night descends. The Menorah is an acute symbol of the power of light to overcome the darkness. When things seem bleak, we light the Menorah in our windows to inject light and warmth into the world. The flickering flames spread their warm light around them and brighten their surroundings.

But the flames of the Menorah are not meant to remain as mere symbols of light - our goal is to actualize their message and spread their light to all areas of our lives. The Menorah teaches us that we can each be a shining light of faith and hope in our homes, workplaces and communities. We can all be a candle and brighten the world around us and the lives of those we encounter. And like the Shamash, our flames can ignite other people's flames so that they too can be ambassadors of light.

I don't know why you decided to take the Shamash from the Menorah and carry it away with you. But I hope we can all emulate you and take the Shamash flame from the Menorah and carry it with us wherever we go. I hope that we can all become walking Menorahs - spreading light and warmth to every place and person we come into contact with.

Please return the Shamash light to its place, but don't stop spreading it's light.

Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom!

With wishes for a brighter world,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Sure as Sunrise: A Chanukah Reflection

 

 

November 26, 2021 | Parshat Vayeshev

Watching a beautiful sunrise can take your breath away, and not only because of its visual aesthetics. As you notice the first rays of color over the horizon, you experience the birth of a new day, a reawakening of life. At that moment a basic truth of nature is reaffirmed - the darkness that invaded the night is only temporary.

But imagine the first human, Adam, experiencing nightfall for the first time. He had no history to rely on and no precedent to comfort him. The world suddenly darkened with no way of knowing if the light of the sun will return. Fear and dread must have filled his heart.

Yet instead of resigning himself to a dark world without the excitement of color or the clarity of sight, the Midrash tells how he took action: "When the sun sank at the termination of the Sabbath, darkness began to set in. Adam was terrified [thinking] “surely the darkness shall envelop me” (Psalms 89:11)… What did the Lord do for him? He made him find two flints, which he struck against each other. Light came forth and he said a blessing over it."

What drove Adam to even attempt hitting the stones against each other? Was it an accident or did Adam somehow intuit the potential of fire in the stones?

One possibility is that Adam knew that the world was meant to be light. Darkness was an aberration. If all around him the light seemed to fade, he knew that there had to be a way that he could create it himself. His absolute confidence in the necessity for light led him to try anything possible to create it.

This is one of the themes, too, of the Chanukah story. Perhaps even greater than the miracle of the oil lasting for 8 days and the miracle of finding the sole untainted jug of oil is the fact that the Jews even looked for the oil in the first place! They had just fought a tough war and finally regained access to the holy Temple only to find it desecrated, defiled, and in disarray. We would forgive them for feeling overwhelmed and being too tired to dream of finding an unbroken jug of oil in the mess. Yet on the forefront of the minds of the battle-weary Maccabees was how to rekindle the Menorah and shine the light of G-d in the world. They knew that the world needed light and were confident that there existed the means necessary to make that happen. They searched for a jug of oil with conviction and created a light that continues to shine over 2000 years later.

We all experience darkness and struggles, on both the personal level and societal. One lesson we can take from the Chanukah story is not to be fazed by the darkness and always remain aware that the light is within reach. At the core of each of us is a bright, untainted light of the soul. Written into the fabric of the world is an eternal flame of hope and goodness. The night may fall and envelop the world, but the sun will always rise in the morning. Our inner Temple may be scattered, but the fuel to brighten our worlds is always within reach. If we see darkness, it is a sign that we have to be the light to overpower it.

Like Adam's flintstones and the Maccabees' jug of oil, when we do everything we can to create light, our efforts are rewarded with success and our lives will radiate with joy and positivity.

Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

 

Don’t Be Thankful

 

 

November 19, 2021 | Parshat Vayishlach

It is much easier to be thankful than to actually offer thanks. You don't have to sacrifice anything to be thankful; in fact, it is enriching. Feeling thankful makes you happier and has been proven to have health benefits.

But giving thanks to someone or something is a very different experience. To thank someone is to humble yourself before them and recognize what they have done for you. It is to sacrifice your pride and acknowledge the other.

Our society is very good at being thankful. It's fashionable to feel thankful and countless studies and articles have come out in recent years extolling its virtues. But this thankfulness can often be part of the ego rather than its detractor; it sometimes projects entitlement instead of negating it.

The Hebrew word for thanks is todah. Insightfully, it shares a root with the word for acknowledgment or submission, hodah. Judaism recognizes that to offer thanks is to humble yourself and acknowledge the other. That's why being thankful requires actually thanking someone. When you express the thanks, you recognize that credit must be given to someone outside of yourself for your success.

In this week's Torah portion, we read how each time Jacob experienced G-d’s assistance, he showed his recognition by building an altar and offering a sacrifice. In the Temple, too, there was a Thanksgiving offering that a person would bring to show their gratitude to G-d. In Jewish ritual, it isn't enough to feel thankful to G-d, you have to express your thanks through sacrifice.

In Jewish tradition, every morning begins with a thanksgiving ritual. Upon waking up, we wash our hands and say:

“Modeh ani lefanecha melech chai vekayam, she-he-chezarta bi nishmati b’chemla, raba emunatecha - I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”

We thank G-d for another day of life. We admit our own frailty and surrender ourselves to the source of life.

So here's a Thanksgiving resolution (is that a thing?) that I suggest: Don't just be thankful for what you have - think about who you are thankful to and why you owe them thanks.

Reflect on your limits and feel grateful and humbled that G-d/your parents/friends/teachers have provided you with so much. Then, don't suffice with feeling thankful - tell them thank you.

And consider starting your day with the Modeh Ani meditation. It will frame your waking hours with a powerful sense of gratitude and humility.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

The Counterintuitive Path to Success

 

 

November 12, 2021 | Parshat Vayetzeh

On Veteran's day this week, I read a quote that the Marines say: "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."

There's profound wisdom here, even beyond the battlefield. We all want to be successful, but we don't necessarily want to do what it takes to get there. And that's because, quite simply, what it takes to get there is uncomfortable.

This week's portion opens with Jacob on the run. His brother Esav wants to kill him and, already in his sixties, Jacob is forced to leave his family and everything he is comfortable with and head into the unknown to start life anew, traveling to his conniving uncle Laban's home where he ends up living for 20 difficult years.

While on this precarious journey, Jacob has a dream. In his dream, he sees a ladder that is rooted on the ground and extends to the heavens. There are many layers of interpretation to this mysterious prophetic dream, but here is one of them.

It is while at Laban's home in Haran, when well into his 70s and 80s, Jacob gets married, builds a beautiful family (the only one of the patriarchs that had all of their children follow in their spiritual and moral path), amasses wealth, and develops spiritually.

Ironically, Jacob's success came when he was least set up for it. Until then, he was pampered; he lived comfortably with his family in the Holy Land of Israel; he spent his time in study and meditation; he never encountered a world that was different or hostile to him. Then he was forced to leave all that behind and travel to Haran, a city named for its moral corruption (the Hebrew word connotes G-d's anger with the city residents), where he was subjected to hard labor and had to live under a roof with a crook. Yet it is there that he flourishes, and not by coincidence.

This was the symbolism of Jacob's ladder. When we are in a compromised position, we have the capacity to reinvent ourselves and uncover strengths that we didn't know existed. When our ladder of growth starts from the lowest point (earth), it can extend to the heavens. Jacob had to leave home to become the person he was. The uncomfortable environment forced him to confront himself and dig deep to find strength and grit to overcome the hardships to reach the greatest heights.

To be successful in any area of life, you have to move out of your home - the space of your life that you are most comfortable with - and stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone. Initiate hard conversations. Navigate complicated relationships. Challenge yourself to try new things. Make the uncomfortable calls you have been pushing off. Put yourself out there.

The same is true in spiritual growth. If you want to grow and develop, you have to make an effort beyond what you are comfortable with. Give a little more charity than you think is reasonable. Don't be afraid to follow your convictions even if others will label you or laugh. Do an extra Mitzvah. If you push yourself that extra mile, you will discover an inner recess of strength and depth that you didn't know you had.

The Marines were definitely onto something, but I think the quote needs a small edit. To reach your heaven, you don't need to die - you need to fully live.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Fighting Hate with Hope

 

 

November 5, 2021 | Parshat Toldot

Is there a Jewish response to antisemtism?

We're starting a new course next week, Outsmarting Antisemitism, and I've been getting a lot of questions about it: How can we outsmart people that hate us? What is there to learn about antisemitism that would necessitate 4 lessons?

The truth is that the course is not about antisemites. It's about us. The thinking is that if the problem is antisemitism, than the resolution might just be a stronger semitism.

This week's Torah portion tells the famous episode of Jacob 'stealing' Isaac's blessings from his older brother Esav. Isaac was blind and Jacob capitalized on that by covering his arms with animal skins to give off the impression of his hairy brother. Isaac thought he recognized Jacob's voice, but when he felt the hairy arms he was convinced that it was Esav, the firstborn. He gave him the blessing, but voiced his suspicion: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esav."

Commentaries explain that this statement alludes to the brothers' respective paths in life. Esav was a hunter and a seeker of power. He asserted influence with his hands, using strength to get his way. Jacob was a scholar, described as tam, translated as simple, sincere or wholesome. He asserted influence with his mouth, educating and inspiring people with his teachings. This is the deeper meaning of Isaac's words: the voice belongs to Jacob and the hands to Esav.

The Talmud says: "If there is a sword, there is no book; and if there is a book, there is no sword." Torah was given to heal the world. Its profound and timeless lessons are the backbone of modern civil society. When we study, practice, and spread the moral and spiritual values of Torah, the divine wisdom influences positive change in the world. It promotes the inherent value of each human being, creates a kinder and more civilized society, and gives people meaning that leaves them content and not searching for the attention that violence gives.

As Jews, we have not had much access to power and instead have a tradition of influencing society through our moral and spiritual teachings, the voice of Jacob.

We owe it to the world to use and share our voice, and scream it from the rooftops. On top of all other practical measures we take, we can respond to those that insist on hate by increasing our own knowledge of Jewish wisdom and sharing it with others - spreading a message of love and tolerance.

I invite you to join the fascinating new course to explore this theme of fighting hate with hope through illuminating source texts and fascinating case studies. You will leave enriched with unabashed optimism and a Jewish identity that is rooted in positivity, purpose, and pride.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf 

Kindness: The Jewish Gene

 

 

October 29, 2021 | Parshat Chayei Sarah

I am always very reluctant to cancel a class or study session. Occasionally something comes up that is important enough to outweigh the study opportunity. This past Wednesday was one of those occasions, and I had to postpone the weekly Parsha Power discussion to next week.

A young child of a family that we are friends with has been battling Leukemia for the past 7 months received the good news that the treatments had been successful and their 4-year-old was going to be discharged from the hospital. After practically living in the pediatric ward for over half a year, they'd be coming home.

To celebrate the wonderful development, friends and neighbors planned a surprise drive-by celebration to welcome them home. It was so heartwarming to join the tens of cars, with balloons, signs, and streamers hanging out of the windows, driving past the family’s home in a procession. They were stunned and overwhelmed by the outpouring of love from their community.

After getting over the initial shock, the father of the young boy shared a few words. "We could not have done this - our little boy could not have done this - without all of you," he began. "I only have one sibling, but since this whole drama began earlier this year, I have gained tens of brothers and sisters." The power of community had got them through this ordeal and strengthened them.

I was moved by his words, and it struck me that this was the hallmark of the Jewish people, and of Judaism itself.

In this week's Torah portion, we read about Abraham's servant Eliezer searching for a wife for Isaac. He devised a plan to find the perfect young woman: he would ask her for water and see how willing she was to help him. Abraham's hallmark was kindness, and whoever was going to marry into the family and continue the tradition of the Jewish faith, needed to exhibit that trait too. No sooner than he hatched the plan, he saw Rivkah (Rebecca) approaching and asked her for water. She responded by not only getting him water from the well but also offering water for his camels.

When he saw this degree of care and empathy for a stranger, Eliezer knew that she was the one. She was worthy of being the future Matriarch of the future Jewish people. This is the central Jewish trait - to care for others and help them whenever possible.

This is what has sustained the Jewish community throughout the thousands of years of our people's history, and is what continues to be the lifeblood of our people today. Kindness is in our genes, so let’s make an extra effort to think about who can use a little help and support and be there for them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Can You Perform a Miracle?

 

 

October 22, 2021 | Parshat Vayeirah

Have you ever dreamed of being a superhero? Do you wish you could do something miraculous? Well, I’ve got some news for you - you can!

Before you get too excited, let me explain what I mean by miracle.

A miracle is when something out of the ordinary happens, and a force that is beyond what we are familiar with breaks to the surface and suspends the natural order. Nature is set and we are convinced that it holds the ultimate power. But occasionally something happens that upends all the rules, and we are shown the hand of G-d that is stronger than the laws of nature.

Just like the world has its natural order, we each have our fixed nature. We have our strengths and weaknesses and when life is smooth sailing, there are the routines we fall back on and the limits we acknowledge about ourselves. How can we stretch ourselves beyond those limits miraculously?

The Hebrew word for miracle is nes, which is oddly etymologically related to the Hebrew word for challenge, nisayon.

In the Torah portion, we read that in choosing Abraham to be the father of the Jewish nation, G-d threw challenges at Abraham time and again to test him. These challenges were designed to help Abraham develop his inner spirit and strength and rise to his utmost potential.

The challenges forced Abraham to suspend his natural tendencies and allow his superhuman core to break to the surface - to perform a miracle. And once he found it, the inner strength that he discovered stayed with him, and his life was changed forever.

Sometimes, life throws us a curveball. We hit a brick wall or face a challenge that seems insurmountable. Perhaps a tragedy that threatens to break our spirit or a struggle that we don’t know if we can overcome.

Our natural response is to become a victim to these circumstances and cower away from them, complaining “why me?” or “life isn’t fair!” But we can choose instead to perform a miracle and find the inner strength that we didn’t even know we had.

I recently read a quote from Australian rugby player, Robert Tew: “The struggle that you're in today is developing the strengths you need for tomorrow.” Every challenge brings an opportunity for us to dig deep within the superpowers of our soul, and allow them to shine through the surface of our lives to overrule our usual, natural response.

We can all be superman, and turn our nisayon (challenge) into a nes (miracle or super-human feat).

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

The Original Non-Conformist

 

 

October 15, 2021 | Parshat Lech Lecha

“What does being Jewish mean?” This was the question that I posed to the children sitting around the table in the first cohort of Hebrew to You, our new Hebrew School model that brings tailored lessons to the homes of the students.

At first, they were too shy to offer their opinions, so I followed up with another question: “Who was the first Jew?”

Judaism doesn’t believe in history (there’s actually no word for it in Hebrew), because the stories we learn are not about the past - they shape our present. Knowing who the first Jew was would be a guide to what being Jewish means to us today.

One student suggested Moses - he took the Jews out of Egypt and taught Judaism for the first time. Another thought Adam - he was created by G-d and interacted with Him. Finally, someone said Abraham - he discovered monotheism and is the first of the patriarchs. Each of these responses had merit and provided an opportunity to explore what being Jewish is (or isn't). Is having a relationship with G-d reserved for Jews? Is practicing Judaism a prerequisite to being Jewish? (The answer is no to both.)

In the end, we settled on Abraham as the first Jew. He was chosen by G-d and told that his descendants would be His nation - the Jewish people. But what made Abraham unique? How did he earn the title Jew? And what does that say about being a Jew today?

We learned about Abraham’s discovery of Monotheism and steadfast faith in G-d. We discussed his kindness and hospitality; he had an open tent policy and would host everyone who passed by. And we talked about his advocacy for the people of Sodom. These are all central features of Abraham’s legacy and hallmarks of Jewish life.

But the term Torah chooses to describe Abraham doesn't reflect any of those qualities. In this week’s Torah reading Abraham is labeled Ha’Ivri (the Hebrew) which translates as someone from the other side. The term communicates more than a geographic place - the Midrash explains that “the whole world stood on one side and Abraham stood on the other.” Abraham was a non-conformist. He stood up for what he knew to be right, even when the whole world was against him. He literally risked his life to promote his faith and values in a society that shunned them. He even stood up to G-d when he thought that He was committing an injustice.

To be a Jew means to stand firm in our timeless Divine heritage of morals, values, and practices, and do what we know to be right even if the whole world thinks or acts differently. To be a Jew means to follow your inner calling, even if it isn’t popular. To be a Jew means to stand tall and proud of your Jewishness and not cower to the hate of antisemitism. To be a Jew is to be an Abraham Ha’Ivri.

In the end, Abraham’s vision withstood the test of time, and today, thousands of years later, he is the inspiration for billions of people. When you have the unabashed conviction to stand strong in your beliefs, eventually people come around and respect you for it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

Surfing Life’s Crashing Waves

 

October 8, 2021 | Parshat Bamidbar

The Flood of Noah was a long time ago, but its waves are still crashing down on us.

Waves are incredible forces of nature and have the power to knock you over, leaving you gasping for air under the turbulent seas. But the brute energy of the water can be harnessed to help you - ask any avid surfer and they'll tell you the thrill of catching a wave. It all depends on whether you have the tools and skills to rise above the wave instead of going under.

The turbulent waters of Noah's flood are also a metaphor for the overwhelming waves of life that threaten to drown us. From our work responsibilities to family commitments and personal challenges - we are swept by conflicting currents in directions beyond our control. The waves can pull us in directions that we don't want to go, or worse yet, totally overwhelm us and leave us gasping for breath.

How do we rise about the tide and have the buoyancy to charter our course in life? What is the trick to enjoying life instead of being overwhelmed by it? You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf. That's where Noah's Ark comes in. The Hebrew word for Ark, Teivah, also means word. The Baal Shem Tov played on this and taught that words can be our lifeboats. Investing our energy in the words of prayer and Torah study helps anchor ourselves in meaningful truths and rise above the flowing waters.

Torah and Tefillah give us a deep sense of mission and purpose and a healthy understanding of who we are. Armed with the right perspective and connected to something larger than ourselves, we appreciate the waves for where they can take us. Family commitments become precious moments. Work responsibilities become opportunities. Personal challenges become areas of growth.

When we are enveloped in the sanctuary of the words of Torah and Tefillah - our personal Ark - we are propelled above the choking waters of life's pressures and are able to feel the thrill of riding life's waves and experience every part of life as a joyous ride.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Menashe Wolf

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