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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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Survival

In the summer of 1963, a group of college students from the United Kingdom visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and presented him with a number of questions. Their questions were primarily philosophical, and the students’ agenda was to discern the Rebbe’s opinion on various subjects.

Among their inquiries, they asked the Rebbe what he felt was the secret to the Jewish people keeping together and surviving for three thousand years.

The Rebbe’s answer was very straightforward: it is the Torah and Mitzvahs that have sustained us all these years. They have not changed, and have therefore enabled us, by following G-d’s precepts, to persevere as well.

To many, this statement may, mistakenly, sound like the stereotypical Orthodox mantra: G-d gave us laws, and if we don’t follow those rules we’re doomed. However, upon further reflection, when actually considering these words, we discover that not only has it been true for the Jews throughout history, but it is in fact true and prevalent today as well.

With the baseball season approaching, let us use the national pastime as a metaphor. Imagine if George Steinbrenner (yes, I’m a New Yorker…) decided one day that he’s changing the layout of Yankee Stadium. From this point on, in order to enhance his players’ ability to score, he’s reducing the distance between bases from 90 feet to 75 feet. One can imagine the uproar this would cause (not to mention the animosity it would add to the already detested Yankees).

But what’s wrong with that? Mr. Steinbrenner hasn’t changed the game much. He hasn’t reduced the amount of bases, or the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. All he did was make it easier for his players, as well as visiting players, to run the bases. The obvious answer is that in order for his team to be part of Major League Baseball, and for them to be allowed to compete with other teams, they must follow the strict guidelines that have been part of the game for so many years.

If they deviate, they may still consider themselves baseball players, but they will find themselves outside of the mainstream. And once that happens, there’s nothing stopping them from changing more rules. Perhaps beginning with having 4-inning games, then 5-men lineups, until one day they may play by a time clock, divided to four periods; use a larger ball filled with air; wear jerseys and shorts; and instead of the goal being to hit the ball out of the park, their new objective will be to throw the ball through a hoop.

Impossible. Right?

The Jewish nation is no different. In order for us to survive, we must stick to what works. For 3,000 years the Torah and Mitzvahs have kept us going; additions, subtractions, or any changes, can only impair our existence as a people.

Of course, the correct approach to Judaism is not that of all-or-nothing. G-d appreciates every Mitzvah we perform, regardless of those we don’t yet do. The challenge is to not be satisfied by what we’ve already accomplished. When behaving a certain way long enough, it becomes second nature and it is time to move on; it is time to challenge ourselves once again; time to see what more we can achieve. What was yesterday’s great accomplishment, is today’s status quo.

The King in the Field

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, when the fate of all Jews is inscribed for the coming year. It is closely followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, during which we pray that all of our sins of the previous year be forgiven. These days have come to be known as the High Holidays.

Preceding the High Holidays is the month of Elul, the final month of the Hebrew calendar. During Elul, we take the time to reflect on all our deeds and misdeeds of the past year. We ask G-d to judge us favorably and grant us a good and sweet year.

The relationship between the Jewish people and G-d is often compared to that of a human king and his constituency. On an ordinary day, the king is in his palace, surrounded by high ranking ministers and guards. In order to gain an audience with the king, one must go through many levels of bureaucracy and protocol before even being allowed to step foot in the king’s palace, let alone meet with him personally.

Occasionally, however, the king goes for a tour of the outskirts of his country, roaming the fields and villages, meeting with the common folk residing in the far out regions of his land. It is then that anyone wishing to meet with the king can simply approach him and make a request. Gone are all the formalities and red tape. All one needs to get the king’s attention, is the courage to approach the king and make oneself known.

After such a wonderful encounter with the king, the simple people from the countryside follow the king back to the capital, to reap the benefits of their meeting, and to appreciate the glory of the great king.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement, compared the month of Elul to that time, when the king is in the “field.” Certainly, during the rest of the year everyone has the ability to connect with G-d through prayer, study, and otherwise. Yet it is during this month that G-d is particularly accessible, and available to listen to every single Jew’s wishes.

We, however, must make the first move. G-d is there, but we must seize the opportunity and make ourselves known. We must remind G-d that we care, and we request that the coming year be a year of blessing and happiness. We assure G-d that the coming year, on our part, will be a better year. It will be a year of greater observance and a year of more diligence in our Jewish behavior. We then anticipate that G-d reciprocate, just as the human king would, and grant that all our wishes come true.

At that point, we all follow G-d back to the “palace,” to the High Holidays when we solemnly recognize G-d’s sovereignty, and truly appreciate G-d’s greatness.

A Night to Remember

With the holiday of Passover approaching, I am often reminded of the story of a certain Jewish doctor who makes a great medical discovery for which the Queen of England has decided to grant him knighthood.

At the ceremony, as the Queen touches his shoulders with the sword, he is supposed to recite an ancient Celtic blessing. However, for all his medical genius, the doctor cannot seem to memorize the required Celtic words. On the day of his investiture, the nervous doctor waits his turn as several others are being knighted before him. As he listens to one after another correctly recite the Celtic blessing, he grows more and more nervous.

Finally, when he kneels before the Queen and she taps his shoulders with the sword, the good doctor completely forgets the Celtic words, and substitutes the first foreign words that pop into his head: “Ma Nishtahnah Ha’Lailah Ha’Zeh Mikol Ha’Leilot.”

The Queen, clearly confused, looked to the gathered crowd, and says, “Why is this Knight different from all the other Knights?”

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Passover is the most celebrated holiday by Jews today. For many of us, our most vivid childhood memories are of the Seder night. The four questions are etched into our collective minds and hearts.

What is it about the Seder night that makes such a powerful and unforgettable impression on the minds and hearts of our children? To answer this question, we must analyze what exactly happens at the Seder.

I believe that we can identify three major themes that comprise the totality of the Seder.

1. Faith - the Matzah that we eat is called Michla D’mihemnuta = food of faith. According to our sages, it was in the merit of our forefathers’ unwavering faith in G-d that they were redeemed from Egypt. Though they were subjected to backbreaking labor and total humiliation, they never doubted G-d’s promise of redemption. At the Seder we remember their faith and attempt to strengthen and nurture our faith in G-d as well.

2. Education - the Torah mentions a number of times that the story of the Exodus should be told to the children. “When your child asks… You shall tell your child…”. There is a Torah obligation for us to remember the Exodus from Egypt every single day. However, while all year long it is adequate to remember this oneself, on Passover night there is the special obligation of telling this story to our children. This is one major difference between the Mitzvah of recounting the Exodus from Egypt on Passover night as opposed to all year long. The Seder night is when we relay our heritage to the next generation, perpetuating the unbroken chain of tradition that extends back all the way to Moses at Mount Sinai.

(It must be noted, however, that what we are teaching to our children on the Seder night is primarily related to faith, and belief in G-d and His Torah. The general theme of Jewish education is addressed on the holiday of Shavuot, when G-d asked for guarantors for the Torah and we responded “Our children are our guarantors.” On Passover the focus is primarily on the transmission of our belief and faith to the next generation.)

3. Story-telling - The Torah states “Vehigadeta Levincha” - you shall tell over the Exodus to your son, in the form of a story. It is not sufficient to just state the facts and statistics; it must be told in story form.

The lesson that Torah is teaching us is quite clear. If we want to successfully transmit faith and belief to a child, the best way to do so is by telling a story. A story has a special charm that leaves a deep impression on its hearers, and especially on children. All the educational techniques in the world do not succeed the way a story can.

What kind of story should we tell? A story of faith, miracles, and righteous people. And what better story is there than the Exodus from Egypt? It is the power of this story that makes such an indelible impression upon children and adults at the Seder table.

It is this message of Passover that we should take to heart: the awesome power that stories have to transmit faith and courage to the next generation. We have many opportunities throughout the year to tell stories to our children. It may be at the Shabbat table, or at night before the children are put to sleep. There are stories of great Jewish personalities of old, or of a grandparent or great grandparent. You will be pleasantly surprised at how these stories are remembered many years from now.

What Happened to the Darkness?

Ever eat a doughnut and wonder where the hole went? This age old questions has plagued carbohydrate-saturated humanity for years. Yet the answer still evades us.

A similar question, though less popular, has been asked by great Jewish thinkers of the past: When one lights a candle in a dark room, where does the darkness go?

The answer given is that darkness has no existence of its own. It is a non-entity because it is simply the absence of light. Once a candle is lit, the darkness disappears. It doesn’t go into the closet, or to the next room. It simply disappears.

When igniting a small flame in a dark room, the room immediately becomes illuminated with the light of the candle. The larger the flame, the more illuminated the room becomes. Nevertheless, even the smallest flame is enough to expel the darkness. Because darkness is nothing.

On Chanukah we light candles. On the first evening of Chanukah we light one candle. On the second night we light two, and so on, until the eighth night of Chanukah when all eight candles of the Menorah are lit.

We start with one candle, enough for the initial expulsion of darkness. Each day we go a step further in brightening our lives with another candle, until the light reaches its ultimate goal; to completely dispel the darkness.

Every year on Chanukah we celebrate the great triumph of the Macabees, led by the illustrious Judah the Macabee, over the vast Greek armies which had invaded the Holy Land of Israel, and threatened to prevent the Jews from practicing their traditions.

The Macabeean army, small and weak as they were, prevailed, with the help of G-d, over the intruding enemy.

The victory is a symbol of a small glimmer of light being triumphant over the great darkness which seemed to be in command. With the notion that darkness is but the lack of light, the victory was easily attainable.

This is the ongoing battle we face every day.

In a world where G-dliness is, say, not on everyone’s prioritized agenda, one may feel at times that darkness is in fact prevailing. It may seem that the mundane is sometimes taking more precedence in our daily lives and directing our every day activities. To combat the darkness which conceals the G-dly light, we must light that small candle, bring that little bit of G-dliness back into our lives.

Once we begin with that, with the tiny flame within us, the process of ridding the world of spiritual darkness will increase, until we will be able to bask in the ultimate G-dly light.

The Chanukah Heroine

Of the many laws pertaining to lighting the Menorah during Chanukah, one rule tends to stick out more than others. It is the law that during the entire time that the candles are burning, Jewish women may not do any chores, household or otherwise.

The little-known story behind this law is an essential part of the greater story of Chanukah. It underlines the bravery of one woman, whose heroic acts should be a model for us, as well.

During the Syrian Greeks’ siege on the Land of Israel, a Greek general by the name of Holofernes demanded that before any Jewish woman marries, she must spend one night with him. One can imagine the distraught atmosphere this caused among the Jews, and the reluctance of many Jewish women to enter the covenant of marriage.

One woman, the beautiful Yehudit, daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, realizing that the continuity of the Jewish nation was in jeopardy, decided to put an end to this horrible decree. On the evening preceding her own wedding, she packed a bag with cheese and strong wine, and approached the general’s campsite. She was escorted to the general’s tent and told him that she has a gift for him. She produced the cheese and he began to devour it. After satisfying himself with the cheese, he became extremely thirsty. Yehudit then gave him the wine to quench his thirst. All it took was a few shots of the strong wine and Holofernes fell into a deep stupor.

In the silence of the night, Yehudit beheaded the general with his own sword, and placed his head in her bag. She quickly left the Greek campsite and went directly to the Jewish army’s camp. She excitedly recounted what had just happened, and suggested that now was the time for the Jews to attack the enemy preemptively.

When they saw what her bag contained, it boosted their morale and gave them the strength to continue battling the Greeks. The army immediately regrouped and attacked the camp that Yehudit had just come from. As the Greek soldiers saw that they were being attacked they ran to their general’s tent to get instruction on warding off the attack, only to find his headless body lying on the bed. The Greeks scattered at the site of their fallen general, thus giving the Jews an easy victory. This victory, and the Jews’ triumph in many other battles, eventually led to the Jews regaining control of their land.

The heroic bravery that Yehudit showed is something that we can all learn from. She did not worry for her own safety and well-being. Instead she took the initiative and saved the Jewish people from a lurking danger. Her courage, and that of many brave Jewish men and women throughout our history, is evidence of our ability to persevere and survive, even in the hardest of times.

With the faith that G-d is on our side, regardless of who the enemy may be, we will always be victorious.

The Miracle of Life

Did you know that the Megillah, which is read every year on the holiday of Purim, is the only book in the entire Written Torah in which G-d’s name does not appear even once?

Wondering why?

Reading through the story of Purim, we discover another most interesting fact. Throughout the entire story we find that very little of it was miraculous. In fact, most of it seems to be extremely coincidental. It seems like the work of a great novelist, with all loose ends eventually coming together.

Beginning with the death of Queen Vashti, and King Ahasuerus choosing Esther as his new wife. Followed by Mordechai overhearing and foiling a plot to murder the king, and Haman’s rise to power. Through Haman’s scheme to annihilate the Jews, and the king’s discovery that Esther was Jewish and that Haman’s plan would have included her.

All the events leading up to Purim seem to fit right into an almost natural course, and not once do we read about a great miracle, such as the sea splitting or manna falling from heaven. All we have is one coincidental occurrence after another.

True, the fact that Haman’s scheme backfired onto himself was very fortuitous, but there were no supernatural miracles. No oil lasted for eight days, nor were any firstborns smitten.

And that is precisely what makes the story of Purim so special.

Take a look at the world around you. Everything seems so ‘normal’. The sun rises every morning in the east, and sets in the west at dusk. Trees and plants grow when they are properly tended to, and will wither and die when neglected. Fire rages and grows when in contact with anything flammable, but will be extinguished when in contact with water.

All this, and much more, is what we’ve come to know as nature. And like everything else in the world, nature, too, was created by G-d. Nature is G-d’s most incredible miracle. We are living a constant miracle. By waking up every morning, we experience this most miraculous event – life.

Even though we don’t feel the G-dliness or the miracle in it all, it is there.

The very name of the Megillah, ‘Megillat Esther,’ makes this point. The name ‘Esther’ translates as ‘hidden’. The true miracle of Purim, as well as that of our daily lives, remains hidden. But we know that G-d, although His name is not mentioned in Megillah, was in fact behind all that had transpired, just as He is behind all that happens in the world.

And just as the Jews of that time believed and trusted in G-d that He will save them from Haman’s wicked decree, so must we, truly have faith in G-d that He is the one who ultimately controls our destiny.

So this year, when you hear the Megillah being read on Thursday evening, March 24, and Friday, March 25, take the time to think about the miracle of Purim, and how much it really relates to us.

Engage the Disengagement

At the time these words are being written, the State of Israel plans to evacuate and dismantle settlements in the Gaza Strip, beginning the first phase of the “Gaza Disengagement Plan”.

The disengagement has been a matter of great contention amongst all Israelis, with strong opinions both for and against. To see thousands of people evacuated from their homes, schools and synagogues is heart wrenching. While at the same time, long term peace and security is also so strongly sought after. All Jews living in Israeli have been “engaged”, in one way or another, by the disengagement.

The stakes are very high. Put yourself in the shoes of a soldier who has been given the duty to remove families from their homes that they have built and lived in for years. Put yourself in the shoes of settlers who have manned the Israeli outposts so bravely for so many years. There is also the concern whether this historic move will achieve the desired results, or will it trigger further foreign pressure to make more concessions and cause greater security risks.

Though American Jews don’t share the daily fears of our Israeli brothers and sisters, we mustn’t let ourselves “disengage” from the Gaza disengagement.

In 1948, when Israel declared independence, there were only 650,000 Jews living in Israel. Today nearly a third of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel. Israel is a country surrounded by hostile neighbors, many of who would love to see the Jewish state wiped off the map. They’ve tried several times; thank G-d unsuccessfully. A safe and secure Israel is crucial, not only to the residents of Israel, but to the Jewish world at large. We must engage the disengagement and put in our fair share.

Here is how we, as American Jews, can make a difference:

From the beginning of our history, when G-d chose Abraham, and later took the Jews out of Egypt and gave them the Torah, up until the present, we have enjoyed a very special relationship with G-d.

In the short history of the State of Israel we have seen the strong hand of G-d bring about mighty miracles that have enabled the state’s survival. The astonishing victory in the Six Day War, and the remarkable lack of fatalities in the Gulf War, are but two obvious examples. If it is our relationship with G-d that has preserved and protected us until now, we must focus on strengthening that relationship.

In honor of the High Holidays, I encourage every Jew in our community, as well as everywhere in the world, to add in prayer, charity and performance of Mitzvot. In that merit we ask G-d to ensure security in the Land of Israel. Whether it may be the increase in charity, for women to light Shabbat candles and for men to put on Tefillin, or affixing Mezuzot on our homes, these Mitzvot have a powerful effect on us, and our brothers and sisters all over the world.

How does a small Mitzvah in Indiana have an effect thousands of miles away? Well, how does a tiny, poor country win battle over many large, strong and wealthy countries combined?

The answer lies in G-d’s commitment to us and, in turn, our commitment to Him.

Faith

When talking of faith, I’m often reminded of a story about a man whose ship had capsized at sea and, while struggling to stay afloat on a makeshift raft, he prayed to G-d that he be saved. Within moments of his prayer, a helicopter appeared and dropped him a ladder. He called out to the pilot, “No thanks, G-d will save me.”

Many times we mistakenly associate faith with blind naiveté. It is assumed that true belief in a supernal power requires completely setting our personal selves aside and allowing G-d to take control. Faith is sometimes interpreted as “reliance,” where we rely entirely on powers beyond us to influence our destiny.

While trusting in G-d’s absolute power is a fundamental in Judaism, it does not include neglecting our responsibilities to ourselves, our families, and our communities. Faith is not a state of mind where we’ve “given up” on the natural course of things and now seek the supernatural. It is not an excuse for one’s inexplicable, and sometimes immoral, behavior; and it is not, or at least shouldn’t be, a source of bigotry and racism.

True faith is when one wakes up in the morning believing that “today will be a good day, because today G-d will help me succeed in what I do best.” Faith is believing that G-d wants us to be productive, and when He sees us doing our part, He will in turn do His.

We cannot expect G-d to help us, if we do not help ourselves.
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