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Rabbi Zalmanov's Blog

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

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The Hypocrisy of Judaism

In a recent New York Times op-ed, “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,” novelist Michael David Lukas described Hanukkah as being a holiday for hypocrites. According to his assessment, most Jews celebrating this wintertime holiday would probably have been hated by the Maccabees, the Hanukkah heroes, and that the holiday only gained significance in recent decades due to its proximity to Christmas. He claims that because the violent uprising of Judah Maccabee and his followers was aimed at preventing the assimilation of Jews in the modern culture of the time, it is hypocritical for secular Jews today to ignore that element of Hanukkah, and that doing so means celebrating a holiday that is really all about violent fundamentalists.

He concludes his piece by saying that he will nevertheless embrace the contradictions and still celebrate Chanukah with his young daughter, but his focus will instead be on the “Hellenized” Jews of the story, rather than the Maccabees.

Aside for the questionable accuracy of his assertion of whether or not Hanukkah was celebrated with much fanfare over the last 2,000 years (which, according to the Talmud, Maimonides, the Code of Jewish Law, and many other works, it was) — he is correct that Hanukkah is a holiday for hypocrites.

The Maccabees were indeed “fundamentalists” in the sense that they believed Judaism can only survive when it is observed as dictated by our ancient traditions. And there is no denying that their revolt against the Syrian-Greek (Seleucid) Empire was in response to the occupiers’ intention to Hellenize Jewish culture and ‘bring it into the modern age.’ In fact, the Al HaNissim prayer recited during Chanukah makes reference to that being a focus of the holiday.

The truth is that this hypocrisy is not limited to Chanukah. In fact, a rabbi’s job should be to inspire as many Jews as possible — even if it involves them being hypocrites. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught his followers, Chabad emissaries around the world, that any mitzvah done by a Jew is valuable, regardless of those that he doesn’t do, and regardless of his or her professed beliefs—be it atheism, humanism, or even Hellenism. Whether or not you believe in the Maccabean effort, even if you do identify with Hellenism — come light the menorah anyways.

I’ve heard more than once, “Rabbi, I can’t come to shul on Shabbat, because I do such-and-such.” Or, “I don’t feel comfortable laying tefillin when I don’t believe in it.” And then there is my all time favorite: “You shouldn’t be teaching Torah to people who aren’t prepared to observe all the laws written in it!”

On the surface, they are right.

Conventional wisdom dictates that you shouldn’t be involved in something you aren’t entirely sold on. It makes no logical sense to go through the motions of an activity when you see no value in it. A student shouldn’t be studying for a career he or she has no interest in and a professional should not be advising clients without complete conviction in the imparted advice. If you believe in something, you get involved with it and promote it. And if you don’t believe in it, you keep away and focus on things that do align with your ideals.

However, Judaism is anything but conventional. There is little about the way we Jews live our lives that makes sense. Of the 613 mitzvahs in the Torah, only a handful have logical explanations, and even the ones that do are still observed because “God said so” rather than because of the rationale. Whether it’s keeping kosher or fasting on Yom Kippur, we don’t do those because of any convenient logic — and we are enjoined to observe them, even if we believe otherwise.

So this is where the hypocrisy — of observing a holiday that may celebrate something you oppose — stems from. And it is also where I disagree with Mr. Lukas. Yes, perhaps the Maccabees would not approve of his secular lifestyle or his beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they would have discounted him as a fellow Jew.

The way traditional Judaism views the Maccabees, and ourselves as the torch-bearers of their legacy — there is no room for hate, only acceptance, tolerance and teaching. No matter what your observance level is: Come light the menorah tonight.

(This column originally appeared in The Forward )

An Unorthodox Secret: How Chabad Fills Pews With Jews

During this year’s High Holidays I observed that nobody at our Chabad House’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services was Orthodox. Of course, my family and I are very observant; we keep and teach a strict adherence to halacha — Jewish law according to the Orthodox tradition — and everything that it entails. But nobody else that participates in our Chabad House’s services or our other programs considers themselves Orthodox. Our congregation is made up of non-Orthodox Jews who come to a service recited almost entirely in Hebrew (with some sporadic English), where men and women sit separately, and all the commentary and talks given by the rabbi are based on ancient texts.

It’s true that in some communities, Chabad caters to a more religious core. But that is certainly not the norm, especially in small towns like ours. On a typical Shabbat in our Chabad House, nearly everyone drove to get there and is either intermarried or has someone in their family that is.
 
Why? Why do several dozen Jews, and in larger cities perhaps several hundred, choose to attend services at Chabad, when the temples and synagogues around the corner offer a much more contemporary experience, complete with musical accompaniment and mixed-gender seating? Why come to a service that doesn’t reflect the denomination they would probably identify themselves as?
 
I think the answer lies in the fact that Jews today are becoming less bound by the need to be denominational. It’s well known that millennials don’t like labels, but in my experience, even older Jews seem turned off by the idea of defining themselves by a specific denomination.

This is something Chabad fervently believes, too.
 
To put it bluntly, a Jew should not be defined by where he or she pays membership dues, and this is where Chabad’s success lies. We don’t label Jews based on how religious they are or by what they do or don’t do; we encourage Jews, based on who they are as individuals, to live a more committed Jewish life.
 
Chabad’s philosophy is that the future of Judaism and the continuity of the Jewish community depends on every individual Jew. This isn’t accomplished by belonging to one congregation or another; it is about making strides in your own personal Judaism. It’s about recognizing the potential within every Jew to connect and to consistently grow that connection.
 
That’s why, when a Chabad kid approaches someone in the street with tefillin or a lulav or Shabbat candles, the question is not “Are you Orthodox?” but “Are you Jewish?”
 
Because if you’re Jewish, then Chabad believes that you can play a role in the future of the Jewish people.
 
Jews living in the religious enclaves of New York and Chicago or elsewhere perhaps don’t need to worry much about their future. Their large families and the strict adherence to Jewish law will almost certainly guarantee that there is a future to their Judaism. But what about the suburban and rural Jews, or the Jews that live in cities with little in the way of Jewish infrastructure, the ones that for whatever reason do not live a fully observant Jewish lifestyle?
 
Is there a future in Judaism for these Jews who might not want to be labeled as belonging to a specific congregation, or feel limited by what that denomination offers?
 
Chabad says yes! By simply making Judaism part of your life and constantly searching for ways to do more as a Jew, that’s how your Judaism will have a future.
 
Starting in the 1950s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent shluchim, emissaries, to cities and countries around the world. The purpose for sending these young emissaries was not to compete with the local Jewish establishment, but to ensure that there is a future for these communities.
 
The Rebbe did not believe in labels for Jews and that is precisely what he taught us. Judaism belongs to all Jews regardless of how observant they are, and non-Orthodox Jews feel at home at Chabad because this is will always be our attitude.

Every Jew is considered family at Chabad and is never judged for what he or she does or doesn’t do. Our focus is the future of Judaism and the Jewish community, and the small steps it will take to ensure that.
 
I like to joke that of all the congregations in our town, Chabad has the largest percentage of High Holiday worshippers returning for a regular Shabbat during the year. True, this is primarily because our numbers are smaller to begin with, but it does say something about the people that attend Chabad.
 
Looking around my small High Holidays minyan, I noticed a man that last year only attended Kol Nidrei and then said that it was “way over his head,” but he recently started putting on tefillin several times a week. There was a family who decided that they would attempt to walk to shul as often as possible instead of driving. And a woman who at great personal cost closed her budding business for Yom Kippur despite it being in middle of the week at a busy time of the year. There were a handful of people who over the last several years have only been buying kosher meat, even if their kitchens at home aren’t entirely kosher yet; and one person who was working on improving his relationships with others.
 
Jewish continuity was sitting right there in front of me. The smallest commitment that a single Jew makes goes a long way towards ensuring that Judaism will remain alive for at least another generation. It is why we live far from family and friends, it is why our children travel for hours to get to school every day. It’s why Chabad services tourists in Kathmandu and students in Missouri and families in towns like mine.
 
Because Jewish continuity is all about the small things and we are here to make that happen.
 
So whether it’s the good food or the informative talks and lectures, or the always smiling faces and casual easy-going environment, or any other reason, whatever it is that initially brings someone into Chabad, they return because they recognize that every Jew can be part of the future.
 
(This column appeared in The Forward

 

Why do people go to High Holiday services?

Dear Friend,

 

 

 

 

When was the last time someone said that the reason he or she goes to High Holiday services is because of the rabbi’s sermon? I know some of my colleagues would like to think that their eloquence is what brings people to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but we all know that listening to the rabbi speak is just another duty we have to put up with as Jews.

Of course, the sermon is an opportunity for the rabbi to communicate with his congregation; to highlight matters that are of concern to him and to the community, to bring to light global issues that he believes need to addressed, and to perhaps even inspire some people to become more involved in Jewish life.

But is that really why people are at services? The reason most people I know go to High Holiday services—especially if they aren’t “shul regulars”—is because that’s what Jews do. Even someone that isn’t entirely sure he believes in G-d will likely attend a service at some point during this month of holidays, because that’s where a Jew belongs. It isn’t because he can’t wait to hear the rabbispeak or the chazzan sing.

Jews are there because they are Jews. G-d loves the fact that they showed up today, even if it was only for an hour or 30 minutes or even less. You showed up and that’s what counts.

Small steps towards an enhanced Jewish lifestyle is what G-d wants. Judaism is not about doing everything at once, it’s about going just a little outside of your comfort zone and doing a bit more than before.

So the fact that you came to services is an opportunity to continue growing your Judaism. A little more Torah, a little more prayer, a little more charity and good deeds; these will go a long way in enhancing our relationship with G-d and making the time we spend in the synagogue fulfilling.

So let’s move beyond the long sermons and instead let’s focus on growing together as Jews and as a community, one small step at a time.

 

 

May you and yours be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year!

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov

(This column also appeared in The Times of Israel

 

 

Mendy's Bar Mitzvah Speech

Dear Friends,

Our son Mendy's bar mitzvah was two and a half months ago and we're still in the process of coming down from the high of celebrating that incredible evening with family and friends.

Part of Mendy's speech that night is relevant to this time of year on the Jewish calendar, as we mourn the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B'av (Sunday, July 22). So instead of writing a column for this E-Torah, I decided to post the transcript of his speech below and let it speak for itself (and if you'd like, you can click here for a video of it).

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov

---

As part of my bar mitzvah preparation I studied an entire tractate of Talmud with my father, Tractate Makos. It took us a while, more than year, because we had to fit it in with my regular school schedule, and everything else going in life. But we persevered and we did it. I’m really proud of us...

It is customary when you finish studying a tractate of talmud to have a siyum, a celebratory meal, and to share some anecdotes from the tractate and to try to make it relevant to today. So in addition to this being my bar mitzvah celebration, it’s also a siyum. So, I will share with you an interesting story from the end of Tracate Makos.

It took place right at the beginning of the common era, about 2000 years ago. A group of sages, Rabbi Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva, were travelling around Israel following the destruction of the second Temple. Twice, they witnessed things that seemed to be bad news for the Jewish people, and both times, while the other rabbis cried and mourned, Rabbi Akiva laughed.

Each time, when his colleagues asked him why he was laughing, he had an answer for them.

The first time, they heard the sound of celebrating and rejoicing coming from the Romans, who had destroyed the Temple. They were celebrating their victory and the demise of the Jewish nation. When the rabbis started crying, Rabbi Akiva did not. In fact, he was happy. He laughed. He explained that seeing these evil people having everything going so well for them in this world, is just an indication how good things will be for the Jews in the world to come. They are celebrating now, but when Moshiach comes we will not only have our joy, we will actually take over their party as well.

The second incident was when they saw the actual destruction on Temple Mount. They saw a fox running around the ruins of what used to be the Kodesh Hakadashim, the Holy of Holies, the holiest spot of the Temple, where only the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, was allowed to enter, and only on Yom Kippur. Again, the rabbis were crying at this devastation, and Rabbi Akiva laughed.

This time he explained to them that he is laughing because he now certain that everything will be good. How? because there are two prophecies, one that predicts the destruction--including having foxes roam Temple Mount--and another that predicts the eventual return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. These two prophecies were linked to one another, and they are dependent on each other. Until I saw the first part being fulfilled, I wasn’t sure that the second part will happen. But now that we see that the Temple has been defiled to the extent that there are foxes running around, we can be sure that the second part will happen very soon too.

Rabbi Akiva’s friends then turned to him and said, “Akiva, you have comforted us.” They were finally able to see things from his perspective.

Rabbi Akiva was a person who worked really hard to study Torah. Until he was 40 years old he didn’t know a thing, not even a single letter of the Alef Beis. But at the insistence of this wife, he began studying, and within a few years he became one of the greatest jewish sages ever. he had thousands of students, including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose yahrtzeit is today, Lag B’omer.

What was different about Rabbi Akiva, the way he stood out among his colleagues and the other rabbis, is that he wasn’t always so great. He worked hard and he earned it. The other rabbis took what they had for granted, so all they were able to see is what was on the surface. They only saw the destruction, the sadness, but he saw how the destruction is actually a stepping stone to a much better time. Just like in his own life, his efforts came as a result of his lacking knowledge, and it is what drove him to work harder and reach greater heights.

And Rabbi Akiva’s optimism was contagious. He accomplished that his friends eventually realized that as well. Even someone that has everything good going for them, like the other rabbis who were Torah scholars from a very young age, everyone needs to realize that it is possible to do even better.

And that is the lesson that I take for myself at my bar mitzvah. I know that becoming a bar mitzvahmeans that I am now a responsible Jewish adult. It means that I can no longer rely on my parents to do things for me, that I have to step up and be a man.

I know that it might not always be easy. Whether it’s waking up early every morning to daven, memorizing the maamer I just recited in Yiddish, or sitting in the car for a few hours a day just to get to and from school. It is difficult, but this story of Rabbi Akiva teaches me that the reward for meeting a challenge is so much greater than if everything was easy.

I also know that this is just the beginning. A bar mitzvah is not the end of my Jewish education, it is the beginning of my life as a Torah observant jew. On the surface it may seem that I am done and can now breathe (it’s true by the way, I am pretty relieved that this day is finally here…) but it also means that there is so much more good to come.

I look forward to being able to learn and grow even more in my Torah studies, in being a proud representative, a shliach, of the Rebbe in our community. I hope to one day serve my own community as a shliach, bringing about the fulfillment of the final prophecy, the coming of Moshiach and rebuilding of the Temple, may very soon!

(Mendy Zalmanov bar mitzvah speech; May 2, 2018)

How long will Chabad be around for?

 Dear Friends, 

Several years ago I was asked to join a review committee for a private foundation that supplies seed money for new Chabad emissaries just starting out. The young rabbis submit applications, and our job is to review the applications each quarter to ensure that the applicants meet the criteria for the grant’s objectives, so that the foundation’s generosity will indeed enable this new Chabad center to get off the ground.

Over the years, grants have been provided to establish Chabad in many cities throughout the United States and Canada, and remote cities on all five continents.

In addition to all these applicants sharing the same vision of bringing Judaism to every single Jew around the world, a unique similarity they also have is that they are all too young to have ever met the Rebbe. In fact, this last quarter a few of the young rabbis and their wives were born after the Rebbe’s passing in 1994.

So much has been written and said about Chabad’s tremendous growth over the last two decades despite the apparent physical absence of a leader; how the Rebbe lives on through the work of his emissaries around the world. How it is testament to the Rebbe’s incredible leadership, inspiring a generation of young people to sacrifice their personal wellbeing to focus on building the world’s Jewish communities.

But until recently, most Chabad emissaries had at least some memories of the Rebbe; even if they were young at the time of the Rebbe’s passing, they still recall the Rebbe’s demand that his followers disperse throughout the globe to reach every single Jew. I was almost 15 that night in June 1994, when we received the devastating news of the Rebbe’s passing—not old enough to be familiar with every talk the Rebbe gave, but certainly aware of what the Rebbe expected of us. And even for those a bit younger than me, the feeling was still the same.

Which is why, when I interview these young emissaries with no memories of the Rebbe, yet they live their lives as though the Rebbe personally instructed them to open a Chabad House in Iceland or Iowa or Ghana, I cannot help but remind myself that the innate connection we have with the Rebbe will not only never diminish, but will continue to grow and shine. It motivates me to stay true to my own ‘shlichut,’ my mission to keep the spark of Judaism alive in our community.

And of course, it goes beyond just those that consider themselves Chabad; especially this weekend, when upwards of 50,000 people are expected to visit the Rebbe’s gravesite for his yahrtzeit, many having little or no obvious connection to Chabad. Because the Rebbe reached everyone—we just need to be open to that connection. And when the Rebbe reached a person, he usually expected that person to in turn reach out to someone else, keeping Judaism alive one step and one person at a time.

Until, as the Rebbe emphasized countless times, we achieve the ultimate goal of making the world a better and kinder place for all of mankind, which will become a reality with the coming Moshiach, may happen in our times.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov

(A version of this column appeared in the Forward.) 

Mazal tov to us all!

In recent a conversation with a friend, he mentioned to me, almost boastfully, that his grandfather was very religious. My response was that I hope that my great-grandchildren will be able to say the same. The implication being that my goal is for my children to be as religious as your grandfather, so that THEIR grandchildren will be able to boast about their lineage. And of course, if each generation concerns itself with just the next generation’s Jewish future, we can essentially guarantee the Jewish commitment of the future.

The reason this is on my mind today is because last month we celebrated our son Mendy’s bar mitzvah.

As we all know, a bar mitzvah is the point in a boy’s life that he becomes responsible for his own actions and obligated to observe all the commandments—the mitzvahs—in the Torah. That’s where the term “bar mitzvah” comes from; the young man is now technically an adult. And the same goes for a girl when she turns twelve and becomes a bat mitzvah.

Much has been written about how a bar mitzvah marks the beginning of Jewish life, not the end; about Jewish education not concluding with the bar mitzvah but should just be getting started; and of course, the fact that the bar mitzvah boy can now be counted towards a minyan.

But perhaps a slightly overlooked component of the bar mitzvah is its significance in framing the future; not only of this specific boy but of the entire Jewish nation. Promoting to our children the values we hold so dear, and encouraging them to take an active part in Jewish life every single day of the year, is what ensures a Jewish future. We should not suffice with our children simply knowing that they’re Jewish, they need to live it. And by living it I mean every part of their lives should be imbued with Torah and mitzvahs.

As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Of course, pushing a child to perform well at his bar mitzvah is nice, for the moment, but once the moment passes, there is little impact on the future. But train children to live like Jews, provide him or her with the tools to live wholesome Jewish lives, and you have ensured a Jewish future for them and their children.

The same message is present in the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates G-d giving the Torah to the Jewish people. The Midrash says that before the events at Mt. Sinai, G-d requested a “guarantor” that the Torah would be treated properly, and we responded that our children will be our guarantors. They will not only ensure that we observe Torah and mitzvahs today, but it is through them that we know there will be future. By putting our children first, we can be certain that everything we believe will be passed on to coming generations.

It’s a work in progress, and even the most religious families have their challenges in this area, but my hope is that with time and effort on our part, and a lot of help from G-d, we are on the right track.

If birds can fly, why can't we?

 Sixty-seven years ago this week, in January 1951, the Lubavitcher Rebbe officially took over the leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. It was at a “farbrengen” marking the one year anniversary of the passing of his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe, after a year of resisting to officially take the position.

In his remarks at the event, the Rebbe implied why he was initially reluctant; he did not want people to rely on him for their productivity or for their spirituality. He explained that he expected every single member of the community to be active and play a role in rebuilding the Jewish world that had been so decimated in the recent Holocaust. The Rebbe also wanted each person to be responsible for his and her own spiritual growth rather than depend entirely on him (as was the norm in other Chassidic circles to that point).

He used a common Yiddish idiom, “Leigt zich nisht arain kein feigelach in buzem,” literally meaning, “Do not place birds in your bosom.”

Some research into the background of this phrase led me to an interesting anecdote in the history of aviation. For many years, before the invention of an airplane by the Wright Brothers, people attempted various methods to be able to fly. One such method was to put a bird—a natural aviator—in your shirt, and then to walk off a cliff, expecting to fly. The obvious absurdity of this experiment was clearly lost on these people, for if we are going to fly, it would require actual avionics, not just keeping a bird in our pocket.

With this reminder, the Rebbe set the standard for Chabad into the future. As part of his mission statement, he declared that while it’s important to have a spiritual leader for guidance, if you want to see progress, you need to go out and achieve it yourself. Don’t put birds in your pocket and expect to fly. Don’t expect the Rebbe to do everything for you; that’s not how it works.

The Rebbe’s ability to empower others was legendary. Thousands of his emissaries around the world carry out his charge through thick and thin. The Rebbe introduced us to a life of dedication to our fellow Jew; a life committed to enhancing Jewish life wherever it may be, as small or remote as it may be; and we would have it no other way. There is nothing more that a Chabad emissary wants than to make the Rebbe’s vision a reality.

And we accomplish that by creating our own wings and taking off.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov 

P.S. Click here for more about the Rebbe's "mission statement."

 

(A version of this column also appeared in The Times of Israel.)

Will the past catch up with you?

Dear Friends, 

It’s been in the news for the last several weeks. Powerful men who believed they were beyond reproach are suddenly being forced to face the music for their inappropriate actions; some many years ago and others more recently. While for most of us, the fear of getting caught is deterring enough to prevent us from misbehaving, to some—especially the elites of society—that fear is nonexistent. The urge for momentary satisfaction is just too strong, and coupled with perceived invincibility, there is no consideration of the consequences.

As always, the Torah predicts and forewarns this attitude. This week we read about Esav, Isaac and Rebecca’s eldest son, selling his firstborn rights to his younger brother Jacob for a mere pot of lentil soup. Many years later, when his father wants to bless his firstborn, Jacob rightfully usurps these blessings for himself, banking on the deal they made decades earlier legally making him the “firstborn” despite being younger.

It is only then that Esav cries out in sorrow, recognizing that his conduct finally caught up with him. But of course, by then it was too late and he was irreversibly trapped in his self-made inferiority. And the rest is history. Jacob’s descendants go on to be the great nation of Israel, while Esav’s go on to be...well, no one really knows who Esav’s descendants are today.

Of course, if this is so regarding misconduct, it would certainly be the case with righteous behavior. The long term effects of doing good may not be known at the moment, or perhaps ever, but you can be sure that it’s there.

And one more tie-in to current events:

This weekend thousands of Chabad rabbis from around the globe will be converging on New York City for our annual conference. While I’m not able to personally attend this year (due to the recent birth of our seventh child), my son Mendy is attending with several hundred of the next generation of Jewish leaders.

You’re not alone if you’ve heard from your Chabad rabbi more than once, “Just do one mitzvah, it makes all the difference!” It’s what we teach and what we strive to accomplish in our respective communities. No mitzvah by a Jew is too small to matter, and nothing is ever forgotten. With so many opportunities to express kindness to others and fulfill the mitzvahs of the Torah, you will actually want your past to catch up with you.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov 

(A version of this column also appeared in The Times of Israel.) 

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…

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