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Rabbi Zalmanov's Blog

Rabbi Zalmanov's Blog

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This Blog constitutes primarily of articles written by Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov in various publications.

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Emotional week, new beginnings

Dear Friends, 

An emotional week for sure. And I’m not even talking about the devastating  Hurricane Harvey aftermath (but you can read about that here).

Our Shayna started high school on Tuesday; she will be living in Chicago during the week, coming home for most weekends. We know that she’ll be in good hands there, guided by some of the best Jewish educators, but the transition has certainly taken us on an emotional roller coaster.

My Facebook memories brought up a picture of her seven years ago, on her first day of second grade. Hard to believe that she is now moving on to the next chapter in life, and even more difficult to come to terms with is that Chanie and I are parents of a high schooler.

I’ve always found it interesting that the school year begins in the weeks leading up to the Jewish new year rather than at the beginning of the civil year. In our home this is not really unique, because for us the Jewish calendar is primary and the civil calendar is just used for technicalities and logistics. So of course, school starts at the “real” beginning of the year.

The new Jewish year is not commemorated with parties and celebrations like January 1. There are no fireworks and certainly no raucous all-nighters waiting for the ball to drop. There is a lot of praying and introspection, looking towards a year of success and growth, health and happiness.

The sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah serves to remind us of the theme of the holiday; that it’s a new beginning and an opportunity to start over. Even if the previous year was not that great, whether spiritually or mundanely, the new year holds so much potential. In fact, this applies to everyone, even if the last year seemed to be a good one for you. Hearing the shofar is the wakeup call intended to take us to the next level, which is why it is so central to Rosh Hashanah.

It’s all about moving on, discovering potential we were never even aware existed within us.

Kind of like starting a new school year.

So here’s to new beginnings.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov 

Take this holiday away please

It’s no secret that some Jewish holidays are unfortunately less popular and less observed than others. This can be due to a lack of knowledge and education, or perhaps apathy and disinterest. But as we know, all events on the Jewish calendar are equally important, and we generally try to focus on all special days, promoting them and usually hosting events or parties to commemorate.

However, there is one day that we don’t promote as much, and in fact I’ve had some questions about it in the past. The date is Tisha B’av—the 9th of Av (this year starting at dusk on July 31 and concluding after dark on August 1)—which is a fast day commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem.

It is a day that has the least fanfare possible. Of course, we fast and observe the prescribed restrictions as well as reciting the necessary prayers instituted for this day. But that’s the extent of it.

In some communities the Tisha B’av services are accompanied by practical jokes and small time mischief. There’s even a story of one rabbi who—after being the victim of a prank on Tisha B’av—looked up to heaven and said to G-d, “Your children are not properly observing this ‘holiday’ you gave them, isn’t it time you took it away from them?”—A reference to the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Temple, when Tisha B’av will no longer be observed as a day of mourning.

Another interesting anecdote is that the book containing the Tisha B’av prayers—called “Kinot”—has for the longest time only been printed in cheap paperback form. This is because Jews have always hoped that this year will be the last that these prayers are being recited; so after Tisha B’av they would all discard the booklets and not plan on needing them again.

The Jewish belief in the coming of the Moshiach has always been real. Through thick and thin, and in good times and bad, we know that the day will come when all Jews will return to the Holy Land and rebuild our Holy Temple.

We also believe that we can actually do something to bring this about. Hoping and praying is important, but like anything else, G-d helps those that help themselves. The fate of our people as well as that of the entire world is in our hands.

Every mitzvah we do and act of kindness we perform makes the world a better place for everyone. Every good deed brings the ultimate redemption a step closer, to a time that—as the prophet Isaiah says—“Nation shall not lift the sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore,” with the arrival of our long awaited Moshiach.

May it happen in our times.

Wishing you Shabbat shalom and an easy fast,

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov

What I learned from the Rebbe

 Countless articles and stories have been written about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory; about his life, his global impact, his teachings, and his concern for every single Jew. But more than anything else, if you knew the Rebbe, or are in any way connected to him, there will be something from the Rebbe’s life that you can apply to your own, especially in our collective mission to make the world a better place.

With that in mind, and in honor of the Rebbe’s upcoming yahrtzeit on the 3rd of Tammuz (June 27), here is some of what I’ve learned from the Rebbe and how I try to apply it to my life. To be sure, this is but a drop in the bucket of how the Rebbe impacted me, but for the sake of this column, I’ve limited it to three specific items.

YOU MATTER

Anyone that ever had a conversation with the Rebbe will attest that at that moment you felt that for him there was nothing else in the world but you. The Rebbe held you in his gaze and nothing else mattered to him. These conversations and interactions could have been as brief as several seconds or as long as a few hours.

I remember once receiving a dollar from the Rebbe (which he would distribute on occasion—with a blessing—in order for the recipient to later give to charity) and being the well-mannered child my parents raised me to be, I said “A dank” (thank you, in Yiddish). I was already being moved along by the Rebbe’s attendants, but as I was leaving he looked at me and responded, “Tzu gezunt” (lit: to health, a Yiddish expression for “you’re welcome”). It may seem like no big deal, but at that moment, I was ecstatic. Not only did the Rebbe give me a dollar, but he actually acknowledged me!

To the Rebbe every single person was important, and he made sure you knew it.

DON’T STOP

Someone was once given a task by the Rebbe, and he told the Rebbe that he will do his best to fulfill it, adding, “Im yirtze Hashem” (G-d willing). The Rebbe responded, “G-d wants it, but you need to want it too…”

The Rebbe was not one to slack off, and he expected no less from his followers. While nobody is perfect, the Rebbe demanded that we strive to always do just a bit more than before. Life is a steady climb to the top and you will only get there one step at a time, without giving up. Just being better than yesterday is already an accomplishment, but don’t stop there; there is always something more to be done.

OPPOSITES ATTRACT

The Rebbe did not believe in paradoxes. He felt that everything that G-d created in this world must be streamlined, even if on the surface things are meant to be opposites. This was evident in the way he fused the various elements of Torah in his teachings. But most importantly, while so many religious thinkers are of the opinion that in order to maintain their religious identity, communities must remain insular, the Rebbe believed that the way to change the world is to be involved in it.

You can’t escape progressiveness or modernism, but you can utilize them for appropriate goals. Chabad today is testament to the Rebbe’s foresight in this area. Whether it was technology or current fads, the Rebbe encouraged their use—granted within the limitations of halacha—for the greater good.

If G-d placed it in this world, there must be a way to put it to use.

--

As I said, this is but a snippet of how the Rebbe influenced me. I encourage you to read more about the Rebbe at www.therebbe.org, and to join us for a special Shabbat dinner with a guest speaker commemorating the yahrtzeit on Friday, June 30.

 

 

A version of this column appeared in The Times of Israel

The Building That Almost Didn't Happen

By now you probably received the invitation to the Grand Opening of the new Chabad House on June 11. It will be a fun afternoon for everyone and Chanie and I hope you can make it.

Looking back at the last year and a half—the purchase of the property, the matching campaign and then the construction—I can’t help but be overcome with emotion and gratitude. So many people to thank and so much to be thankful for.

 

There were times when doubts crept in to our minds about this project, and there were also times when it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. But as it turned out, at every step of the way, immediately following any of these feelings of uncertainty, something else would happen that would bolster our resolve to see the project through.

It’s almost like we needed to take a step back, so to speak, in order to be able to project forward. And thank G-d for that, as the beautiful new building can attest.

This thought came to me as I was researching Lag B’omer, which is celebrated around the world this Sunday. One of the traditions associated with this holiday is archery demonstrations. Children are given play bow and arrow sets, and communities visit fields and parks to enjoy the great outdoors.

One of the reasons for the archery is that it epitomizes the above point, that quite often in order to succeed one needs to first step back. When shooting an arrow from a bow, the arrow is first pulled back before it can propel forward. There are many other examples that make this point, such as bending your knees before jumping, or pulling your arm back before throwing an object.

Without the step back, even if you do end up moving forward, it will not be nearly as powerful. And that’s what we should always keep in mind when feeling down; just think of how great things will be on the other side.

And now we have a beautiful Chabad House to prove it.

Grand opening (1).jpg 

 

A Birthday Gift

This Friday’s Hebrew date is the 11th of Nissan, and it is the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s birthday. As a child and later as a yeshiva student, every year on this date, three days before Passover, my friends and I would celebrate the Rebbe’s birthday by fanning out around New York City to meet other Jews in the streets. We would offer the men a chance to put on tefillin, Shabbat candles for the women, and everyone would get a package of handmade shmurah matzah for their seders.

The Rebbe lived to serve the Jewish people, and these activities on his birthday just seemed to be the right type of ‘gift’ for him.

Of course, this was not limited to the Rebbe’s birthday; it is something that Chabad boys and girls often do, but the 11th of Nissan was the highlight of our relationship with the Rebbe—the Rebbe’s personal day—and what better way to observe it than by doing what the Rebbe loved?

Looking back, I can comfortably say that this prepared me for what I do today, bringing the joys of Judaism to my fellow Jews on a regular basis. Twenty three years after his passing, we still celebrate the Rebbe’s birthday because his inspiration is why Chanie and I live in Munster and it’s why our home is open to every Jew. It’s what drives us to deliver shmurah matzah to as many people as possible, to encourage people to do just one more mitzvah, and to represent the Rebbe in our part of the world. We live for making the Rebbe proud.

All the activities of Chabad of Northwest Indiana, as well as every Chabad around the world, are our birthday present to the Rebbe. And by your being involved with Chabad, even in the slightest, you are also are part of this gift.

Happy birthday Rebbe! L’chaim!

Wishing you all Shabbat shalom and a happy and kosher Passover.

P.S. Here’s a picture of a 6-year-old me saying l’chaim to the Rebbe.

rebbe.jpg 

Greatest Party Ever

Dear Friends, 

A typical Purim column usually consists of heralding the heroism of Esther and Mordechai, the role they played in standing up for their people and saving the Jews from impending annihilation. It is often about the lessons we can learn today from these Jewish leaders, and how we should strive to be like them.

But what would Purim be without turning convention on its head and focusing on a different character from the Purim story, the Persian monarch Achashveirosh. The Megillah describes the king as being corrupt and self-absorbed, looking out for his own best interests rather than his subjects’. He was a canny survivor, knowing when to shift his positions as the tide turned to place himself on the side of the winner.

So while it seems that there isn’t much to learn from this unprincipled narcissist, what stands out about him is that he didn’t do things half way.

At the beginning of the story we read about a lavish party that he hosted for—get this—180 days! Not a day or even a week or a month, a half a year! And then there is the description of the opulent displays at the party and the high end wines and food he served, and many other luxuries that were literally fit for a king. He did not hold back; he was celebrating his survival and he put it all out there.

In other words, Achashveirosh was all about committing to something and doing it right. Don’t settle for second best; always strive to be number one.

Sure, that sounds cliché. But how often in life do we slink back and say, “You know, I think I’ll just take it easy today, I won’t exert too much effort, I’m good with lesser accomplishments this time around.” Even if it’s not in those exact words, we sometimes can’t help but feel like slowing down.

The fact that the description of this party is included in the Megillah—and right at the beginning no less—must be telling us something. If you’re going to do something good, you might as well do it right and do it all the way. Let’s utilize the time that G-d has given us in this world and make the most out of it, every single day!

And of course, don’t forget to RSVP for Purim in Outer Space, where you can be sure to have a party fit for a king!

Shabbat shalom and happy Purim!

Is it Spring Yet?

The holiday of the 15th of Shevat (AKA Tu B’Shevat), observed this year on February 10-11, is known as the “New Year for Trees.” It is not simply the Jewish version of Arbor Day, but has actual implications in Jewish law. It is related to when the various agricultural commandments of the Torah are observed in Israel.

But more than that, the fact that this holiday is smack in middle of winter has a fascinating lesson for everyone, even those of us not living in Israel currently.

To some it might seem odd that a holiday celebrating trees and blooming takes place during the months of the year that most of us are snowed in and dealing with unbearable cold. I mean, wouldn’t it make more sense for this day to be observed on, say, the first day of spring? What is it about this date that makes it the beginning, or new year, for trees?

Technically, the 15th of Shevat is the midway point between the beginning of winter and spring; but still, what are we celebrating?

And the answer is just that. We commemorate the turning point; that moment when we can say that have made it through half of winter and we can now focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. Once half the winter has passed, its grasp on us is no longer as strong as it was in the beginning, and the budding process—the potential for growth—can begin.

Yes, it is still cold and snowy out, but the groundwork for a warm and productive spring is already being laid.

And just as this is our attitude towards the cold and dark winter, the same should be the way we approach all of life’s challenges. We sometimes find ourselves stuck going through the motions without much of an end in sight. We might question what the purpose is and why we were put in a particular situation.

But we remember that beneath even the deepest darkness there is a light brewing and starting the process of shining through; that hiding behind the coldest and least inspiring moments is the warmth of life that can invigorate even the most uninspired.

So don’t let the gloomy winter get to you. Celebrate the beginning of the budding season, and warm yourself up. It can’t be much longer…

Just Show Up

Dear Friends, 

I’m writing this at 30,000 feet on my way back from a quick trip to Montreal. The purpose of my trip was to perform the mitzvah of nichum aveilim—comforting mourners—for my brother-in-law and his family, who lost their 17-year-old brother this week to cancer. I left Munster early this morning, and I spent three hours with them before returning to the airport to catch my flight home.

As a rabbi I’ve attended my fair share of lifecycle events, but a shiva for a young man taken in the prime of his life is especially heartbreaking. The loss is unbearable and visitors were at a loss of words; however just being there is considered comforting and that’s what I did—I showed up.

Sitting here trying to come up with a thought for my monthly column, it dawned on me that in life sometimes just being present is all it takes to make a difference. One might think that you need to have the perfect words or an eloquent turn of phrase to be memorable. We try to impress when in reality all that’s needed is to show that we care.

In fact, sometimes eloquence can even be a disadvantage. Take Moses, for example. When G-d sent him to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Jews from bondage, he initially stalled, saying that he had a speech impediment and that G-d should send someone else. So G-d appointed Moses’s brother Aaron to be the spokesperson; Moses would relay G-d’s message to Aaron, who would in turn tell it to Pharaoh. Later on, for 40 whole years, it was Moses himself—speech impediment and all—that taught and led the Jews.

One of the Torah commentators notes that had Moses been a polished orator, it would have been suspected that it was his eloquence that got the Jews to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai. But instead, by just being who he was, just doing what he was entrusted by G-d to do without making it about himself, he became the most dedicated and fearless leader of the Jewish people.

Eloquences and fancy words, or anything else that is used to impress, can only get you so far. But being there for others and showing that you care is what makes the world a better place for all.

May the family of Meir Yaakov Yosef ‘Yanky’ ben Menachem Mendel find true comfort, and may they know of only joy and happiness in their lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov

The Ridge Road Menorah

Dear Friends,

A highlight of our Chanukah is without a doubt erecting the giant 9-foot menorah in front of our house on Ridge Road. The kids always look forward to the day that it is put up, and they take it upon themselves to ensure that each night of Chanukah the appropriate amount of candles are lit.

Over the years we have heard from many people how special it is to see this display and how meaningful it is to them. In fact, one year we received a letter in the mail from a woman we don’t know, saying that every Chanukah she looks forward to seeing the menorah, and she even makes a detour on her way to work each day in order to pass it.

 

What is most intriguing about this is that many of the people that comment about the menorah are not Jewish. One would think that with the Town being flooded with holiday lights and decorations on every street and block, this one symbol of Judaism would barely be noticed.

Yet the opposite is true, and in fact I am not at all surprised. The menorah has come to symbolize freedom to practice our faith in this country, and for everyone—no matter how small and seemingly insignificant—to have an impact on the world. We don’t suffice by celebrating with our families in the comfort of our homes; we make a point to share the light outwards.

Menorahs are lit in windows and doorways around the world, as well as in public squares and town centers, and even on a street in Munster. Because all it takes is one light, one solitary individual, to decide to make a difference and to impact the world.

The small but ever-increasing light of the Chanukah menorah reminds us that despite the darkness that might surround us, we can all shine and bring light to those around us. You, me, and every single person on this planet.

Similar to what we read in this week’s Torah portion, about Joseph refusing to assimilate in Egypt. He stood strong in the face of temptation, eventually becoming the leader and saving that country from famine. He was not concerned with being different than everyone else; his only agenda was making a difference and having a positive impact on people’s lives, even those that were of a different faith than him.

That is the message of Chanukah and that is the story of our giant menorah.

Please join us Saturday night at 7:00 PM for a grand menorah lighting and Chanukah party.

Shabbat shalom and happy Chanukah,

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov

 

Anonymous Rabbis

 Dear Friends,

Several years ago I wrote an article for the website Chabad.org, responding to an “ask the rabbi” question about the personality of Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, who was sent to find a wife for his master’s son, bIsaac. The title of the article was “Why is Eliezer anonymous?” because in fact, Eliezer’s name is not mentioned in the story at all.

A few years after the article was published it was again featured on the Chabad.org homepage as well as in the weekly e-magazine, coinciding with the Torah portion in which the story is read. It happened to be the week of the international conference of Chabad rabbis, held every fall in Brooklyn.

 

Over that weekend, I was ribbed more than once by colleagues and friends from around the world about Eliezer being anonymous. It was not lost on me, and obviously my friends, the irony that the subject of the article shared a name with the author.

Although the comments were made mostly in jest, there was still something thought provoking about them. It reminded me that despite each of us being leaders in our respective communities, in the bigger picture we are actually “anonymous.” This may not be evident at all times, but when we come together, some 3,000 rabbis from the furthest reaches of the globe, I recognized that we are all but one piece of a much greater endeavor. Greater than each of us as individuals, and greater than anything we can accomplish on our own.

When the Rebbe sent his first emissaries in the 1950s, no one in his wildest imagination (except for the Rebbe himself) envisioned Chabad being where it’s at today. But despite the tremendous growth spanning six decades, the mission always remained the same; bring Judaism with a smile to every single Jew. And to that end, there is no difference between a Chabad rabbi in Cape Town, Istanbul, Liverpool, Santa Fe, and even Munster. We are “anonymous” because we are not it for ourselves, but to fulfil the mission entrusted to us by the Rebbe. It is not about the individual rabbi, instead we focus on bringing the whole Jewish world together, regardless of geographic distances.

And this weekend, as we once again convene for the annual conference, these 3,000 anonymous rabbis, who all look and dress the same, will be reminded of this charge. We are here to serve all Jews regardless of background, affiliation, and even whom they voted for. At Chabad, every single Jew fits right in, because at the core, we are all the same.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov

 

Cubs Win!

Dear Friends,

Although I’m a Yankees fan, I found no small measure of satisfaction in watching the Chicago Cubs win a nail biter of a World Series Game 7 last night. And although I originally intended to only include a personal note in the E-Torah once a month, I think this calls for an exception.

As a rabbi it is my job to connect current events to Torah and Jewish life. So here are two thoughts about the Cubs’ victory that can apply to everyone.

We keep hearing about how the last time the Cubs won it all was 108 years ago. But it doesn’t take a genius to realize that almost nothing about the ball club today is the same as it was back then. Not the players or the coaches, nor the owners or the fans. Not to mention the billy goat. Nevertheless, “we have been waiting for this for 108 years” is still a relevant emotion, because, well, it’s true.

A similar sentiment is often used to describe the Jewish people’s relationship to the Torah. Yes, none of us were actually present at Mt. Sinai when the Jewish people became a nation and we weren’t the ones to hear G-d’s voice giving the Ten Commandments, but still we were all there. Our souls, together with the souls of Jews from all times, were there and accepted the Torah. And this intrinsic connection that we have with G-d and to one another has kept the Jewish spark alive for more than three thousand years, almost like Cubs fans throughout the last century.

My second thought is about the wait. For 108 years Cubs fans and baseball enthusiasts have been waiting for this title, which finally came. On a larger scale, the Jewish people have been waiting for the coming of Moshiach with the ultimate redemption and return to Israel for two millennia. And we too still believe and will never give up hope.

But that’s where the similarities end: Unlike watching a baseball game—whether from the stands or on the couch—where the fan can do nothing but hope and bite his nails, there actually IS something we can do bring Moshiach. Every time a Jew does a mitzvah and performs an act of kindness, he or she truly does accomplish something to this end. With each mitzvah we bring Moshiach closer, ending the wait and ushering in the long overdue redemption.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Feel free to comment on my blog.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov

Hit the Road

Dear Friends,

At a recent Shabbat service I announced that starting this week, once a month I will write my own thoughts in the E-Torah, rather than simply copying and pasting from various sources. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this.

So, here goes...

Nearly one month ago we celebrated the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, and we kicked off the busy High Holiday season. Earlier this week we celebrated Simchat Torah (and what a Simchat Torah is was!), and with that we concluded the holiday season. So, after the busiest month on the Jewish calendar, especially at Chabad with people coming and going all month—for services, meals, parties, and so on—it's finally back to our everyday routine, normal life.

There is an old Chassidic saying, borrowed from a verse in the Torah which says, that after this month of holidays, "Yaakov halach ledarko"—Jacob went on his way. Or to paraphrase the song, "Jack hit the road."

After being surrounded by the holiday atmosphere, both the solemnness and the joy, it is now time to hit the road, to go back to the daily grind of our regular lives.

As you can imagine, this can sometimes be a downer. It's like a crash landing after a month of inspiration and excitement. It can be depressing

But, it doesn't have to be viewed that way. There is another perspective, which I think is really the purpose of all the holidays being packed into one month anyway.

The reason we have all these holidays right at the beginning of year is so it can have an impact on the entire year that follows. It isn't just a month of holidays; it is a month with the potential to set the tone for the entire year to come. Everything we do during that month has the potential to play a role in how our year turns out.

When we "hit the road" after the holidays, we should feel empowered by the inspiration of theholidays to live an uplifting and more spiritual life in the months that follow. So we don't leave the holidays behind, rather we take them along with us on the road, on our journey through life. We celebrate our Jewishness—which has been on full display during the past month—throughout the entire year.

As I always say, don't leave Judaism to the rabbis and the synagogues. It belongs to each everyone of you; make it your own every day of the year, and hit the road! 

Wishing you all a Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov 

The TRUE High Holiday

An article by a rabbi for the High Holidays is expected to be about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But at Chabad you can always expect the unexpected, so I will ignore those holidays and instead I will focus on what is actually the most important holiday of this entire month—Simchat Torah.

Huh? Did I just read that right? Did Rabbi Zalmanov just say that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not as important as Simchat Torah?!

First, let me say something about myself: as a Chabad rabbi I always prefer joy over solemnity. I certainly rather officiating at a wedding than at a funeral; and when it comes to holidays I find more meaning in those that are all about rejoicing than about somberness.

Of course Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are vital components of our observances this month, but they are only the beginning.

You see, the entire month of Tishrei, and in fact the month of Elul leading up to it too, is like a ladder. We climb this ladder each day as we work on enhancing our relationship with G-d. It is a time of year that we are given an opportunity to start over and pledge to lead better Jewish lives. And this comes to a head on Simchat Torah, the final holiday of the month.

An interesting analogy is that of a parent and child. In order to succeed as a parent, there needs to be an element of firmness and discipline. A child must know that there are rules that will be enforced. But that isn’t what the parent-child relationship is all about. Ask any parent what they want most for their children, and almost everyone will reply that they want their children to be happy.

Yes, we discipline, but that’s not what makes our relationship. The best moments of our lives are when our children laugh and smile.

The same goes for our relationship with G-d. We start the month of holidays off with the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but what G-d really wants is for us to celebrate. Our true relationship with G-d is expressed when we dance with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah.

Being the last holiday of the month tells us that it is the greatest; the holidays that come before it are all a prelude to this ultimate celebration. It is the holiday that we celebrate having reached the top rung of ladder. We express our joy by letting go of our inhibitions, rejoicing in our successfully making it to this point.

This is a pure joy that cannot be interrupted by anything negative, because it is all about our essential connection to G-d, which can never be severed. Regardless of how a Jew lives his or her life, at the core we are all the same, and we can all celebrate together.

At Chabad Simchat Torah is always a good time, for both children and adults. We dance, eat, have some l’chaim, and there may even be some surprises. If you’ve made it through the High Holidays, and even if you didn’t, it is only right that you enjoy Simchat Torah.

Freedom

I was recently asked to write a column for The Jewish Press about Passover and what comes to mind when I hear the word “freedom.” I am pleased to share it with local readers as well.

I see freedom, especially in association with the holiday of Passover, as the ability to practice and share our faith with others. That’s what we celebrated the first time, when the Jewish nation was freed from Egypt, and that’s what we celebrate today.

Someone once approached the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, and offered to make a fairly large donation towards a project of the Rebbe’s choosing. This was several weeks before Passover, so the Rebbe suggested that he support the endeavor to deliver handmade shmurah matzah to as many people as possible.

When the person heard this, he thought the Rebbe misunderstood his offer. So he said, “Rebbe, I want to donate to a BIG project” (i.e. a new building or something similar). To which the Rebbe responded, “To me, for every Jew to have shmurah matzah on Passover IS a big project.”

It is a big project because that’s what Judaism is all about. It’s not about large buildings and endowment funds; it’s about the small details, which we often tend to overlook, but without which there can never be a big picture.

Being able to look beyond our own understanding of what is important, and reach out to others—that, my friends, is the most liberating thing about Judaism.

Two rabbis, two completely different messages

Earlier this week, I came across two videos in my social media feeds of rabbis giving lectures. Both rabbis are Israeli-born and currently live in New York, and they both speak heavily accented English. But that’s where their similarities end.

One of them is clean shaven, wearing a stylish suit and colorful tie. The other has a long beard and peyos, and was wearing a shtreimel. The first, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi, is a well-known YouTube sensation; the second one, Rabbi Nachman Twersky, is a teacher at a Chabad yeshiva high school. (He is a descendant of many great Chassidic rebbes, and when joining Chabad in the mid-70s, he was encouraged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to continue wearing a shtreimel and grow long peyos, to honor his ancestors.)

And while you would think that the modern looking rabbi would have a more contemporary message, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The video of Rabbi Mizrachi is of him speaking extremely harshly about non-religious Jews, especially those that—he says—believe that by doing a few mitzvahs here and there they can get away with their otherwise sinful behavior. He also reprimanded certain orthodox groups who convince these ‘sinners’ that this is an acceptable lifestyle. That’s pretty old-school orthodoxy.

Rabbi Twersky’s message was the exact opposite. He highlighted the beauty of performing even a single mitzvah despite not living a completely religious life. He spoke of how every Jew is loved by G-d regardless of how he or she behaves, and how ultimately we all have challenges, so who are we to judge others. To quote, “G-d loves every Jew, and that’s why He wants us to do mitzvahs. Not that He loves us because of the mitzvahs that we do.”

He went on to encourage yeshivas to give the same attention to ‘weak’ students as they do to the scholars. A refreshing outlook indeed; and quite the contemporary one.

To me this was a typical case of not judging a book by its cover, or a rabbi by his clothing.

Rabbi Mizrachi might be the more modern looking of the two, but he does not seem concerned with the negative impact his talks can have on his listeners, particularly those taking baby steps in their religious growth. True, he claims that his words are often taken out of context, for example the recent uproar over his degrading comments about millions of holocaust victims. But apparently he can still use a reminder of the teaching in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers: “Scholars, be careful with your words.”

On the other hand, just because Rabbi Twersky’s appearance is that of an old-fashioned Chassid, it is no indication of his modern approach to teaching. His only agenda is that his fellow Jews become aware of how precious they are to G-d.

Our external looks say nothing about who we are inside. The shtreimel wearing rabbi and the tattooed and pierced hipster—and everyone in between—are really all the same. We share a collective Jewish soul, along with the potential to do so much good.

(This article originally appeared in The Times of Israel.) 

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