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Torah E-Thought

Torah E-Thought


It’s time for an uprising

“The mention of a righteous man shall be a blessing, but the name of the wicked shall rot [Proverbs 10:7].” Hence the common Jewish expression “yimach shemo – his name should be blotted out” when talking about some of the worst anti-Semites in history. The Talmud interprets the latter part of this verse as a directive to not name one’s child after an evil or corrupt person, so that the wicked person’s name will be put out of circulation.

And yet this week’s Torah parshah is named Korach, perpetuating the memory of a man who led a rebellion against Moses—the greatest leader of all time! If we shouldn’t name our child Korach, why do we give a Torah portion his name?

Chassidic philosophy explains that despite Korach’s serious wrongdoing, at the root of his rebellion lay a kernel of truth and a virtue we must aspire to emulate.

Korach wanted to replace Aharon as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. The attraction of this position was the extraordinary sanctity that came with it, which enabled the Kohen Gadol to stand before G-d and to serve Him constantly. In its essence, Korach’s aspiration was commendable. In fact, the Midrash relates that when Korach and his associates told Moses what they wished for, Moses said, “I, too, desire the same!” We therefore title the parsha using Korach’s name, paying tribute to his admirable quest for holiness.

When naming the parshah after Korach and his desire for spirituality, we miss out the first word of the portion; “vayikach – and he took” is not included in its title. The words “vayikach Korach” mean that “Korach set himself apart,” emphasising the rebellion against Moses, who, at G-d’s directive, appointed only Aharon as Kohen Gadol. The word vayikach is therefore omitted from the title, because Korach’s unacceptable actions and the strife he caused are not what we seek to memorialise.

Korach’s name however, remains, for his lofty dreams are an inspiration for all time.

People often feel that that they need to excuse their lack of observance to the rabbi and invariably blame opportunities missed when they were younger, or spiritual aspirations for the next generation. How often have I heard, “if only I had…” or “at least my children will…”? Lifestyle changes are difficult but I have yet to meet someone who has regretted doing a mitzvah.

This week’s parshah tells us – be a Korach! Aspire to be more spiritual. Challenge the accepted norms of society! And the Torah will forever remember you. 

Illiberal Liberalism

The leader of one of our major political parties stood down this week because he could not reconcile his religious beliefs with the leadership of his party. While there are those who feel that as the leader of the party he needed to be able to agree with its policies, I feel it is a sad state of affairs when someone is forced to choose between their job and their religion.

In this week’s parshah we read about the twelve spies who Moses sent to spy out the Holy Land. The Land of Israel was to be divided into twelve portions, corresponding to the twelve tribes. Each tribe's territory is particularly suited to its unique spiritual path within the overall path of the Torah.

By traversing the entire land, the spies were in fact preparing the land for the spiritual mission their tribe would fulfil: transforming the land to holiness. Yet we see that when spying out the land the tribes didn’t only visit the future portion of their tribe rather all twelve spies traversed the land together. The fact that each one walked the length and breadth of the whole land, not merely his tribe's specific territory, reflected the intrinsic unity of the Jewish people that rises above their division into twelve tribes. This unity derives from the common Divine mission shared by every Jew: to make the world into G-d's home.

Each tribe and indeed each individual was given their own path as how to accomplish this goal with the ability and means from G-d to accomplish it. Although the general mission of turning the world into G-d’s dwelling place is more fundamental and more sweeping, it must be reduced and applied to specific situations in order to be fulfilled by individuals acting in a diverse world.

The mission of the spies shows that both elements are important. On the one hand by traversing the land together we are taught that the individual goal must never lose its context within the greater goal of the entire nation. At the same time, the fact that all twelve tribes were represented signified that there are differences in purpose and approach.

At my Jewish Discussion Group in GSAL yesterday we grappled with the need to be accepting but not always agreeing and with the limits of acceptance. While some comments and views will hopefully always be out of the pale of normal discourse, those hoping to build a modern, liberal, accepting society must learn to respect people's views even if they disagree with them. And to understand that people can hold views we disagree with without it impacting them as a person.

Humble Pie

The dust will yet settle on the General Election results and history will look back and judge the leaders and their parties.

Humility and politics don’t go well together. Former Conservativeleader William Hague once remarked that the Conservative Party is an “absolute monarchy tempered by regicide”. It takes strong character and no faint heart to be the leader of a major political party.

But when does strong character cross the line to haughtiness or aloofness? These are some of the accusations that have been levelled at the underperforming leaders of the Conservatives and SNP.

In this week’s parshah we read about challenges to Moses authority. The Jewish people again complain and Moses tells G-d, “Why have You treated me, Your servant, so badly? Why have I not found favour in Your regard, that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nursing woman carries a suckling,' to the land You promised their forefathers?”

This was the same Moses who stood and faced down the entire nation when they worshipped the Golden Calf when he destroyed the idol and punishing the perpetrators. What had changed?

The Torah tells us that “ Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any other person on earth.” Humility is not the result of underestimating one's true worth. Moses understood very well that he was an extraordinary individual who had been chosen by God to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt and receive the Torah. His unique nature was evident to all when he was born and the house was filled with light. However, Moses also understood that his special character was a gift from God. He thought that had these lofty traits been given to someone else, they may have been able to reach an even higher level than he did.

Humility is often misunderstood as simply the lack of boastfulness: we are humble if we feel superior to others but just don't tell anyone about it! True humility, however, is learned from Moses. He was fully aware of his greatness, but attributed it not to himself but to G-d. This allowed him to respect others and see them in a positive light, as G-d has blessed them, too, with their own unique qualities.

This compassion and understanding of his flock is what has made Moses the paradigm of a Jewish leader. Perhaps it is a lesson for all our politicians. 

Chag Sameach

By the Grace of G‑d 
16 Shevat, 5724 [1964] 
Brooklyn, NY

...One of the basic messages of the Ten Commandments is contained in the fact that they begin with I am, etc., i.e. the profound principle of monotheism, which in itself was a tremendous revolutionary idea in those days of idolatry, dominated by the polytheistic culture of Egypt (as indicated in detail in the Second Commandment, where all forms of idolatry are strictly prohibited). Incidentally, the emphasis on monotheism, and the denial of polytheism, is to be seen not only in the fact that these ideas form the subject of the first two Commandments, but also in the quantity of words and detail which they contain.

At the same time, the Ten Commandments conclude with such apparently simple and obvious injunctions as, Thou shalt not steal, etc.

The profundity of monotheism, with which the Ten Commandments begin, and the simplicity of the ethical and moral laws, with which the Ten Commandments conclude, point to an important lesson, namely:

a) The true believer in G‑d is not the one who holds abstract ideas, but the one whose knowledge of G‑d leads him to the proper daily conduct even in ordinary and commonplace matters, in his dealings with his neighbors and the respect for their property even if it be an ox or an ass, etc.
b) The ethical and moral laws, even those that are so obvious as, Thou shalt not steal, and Thou shalt not murder, will have actual validity and will be observed only if they are based on the first and second Commandments, that is to say, based on Divine authority, the authority of the One and Only G‑d.

If in a previous generation there were people who doubted the need of Divine authority for common morality and ethics, in the belief that human reason is sufficient authority for morality and ethics, our present generation has, unfortunately, in a most devastating and tragic way, refuted this mistaken notion. For, it is precisely the nation that has excelled itself in the exact sciences, the humanities and even in philosophy and ethics that turned out to be the most depraved nation of the world, making an ideal of murder and robbery, etc. Anyone who knows how insignificant was the minority of Germans who opposed the Hitler regime, realizes that the German cult was not something which was practiced by a few individuals, but had embraced the vast majority of that nation, who considered itself the super race, etc. Surely it is unnecessary to elaborate on this at greater length.

With all good wishes, and with blessing,


Good Neighbours

 The horror of Monday night is still fresh in the mind. Being Manchester born and bred and having passed the Arena numerous times while it was being constructed and since, makes it feel more real. The fact that children we know were caught up in the horrible events makes one shudder.

Since the attack and indeed after every such terrorist attack, my facebook feed has been full of people hurting from the event and responding in different ways. There were even those who had the solutions to the scourge of international terrorism. Stop interfering in foreign wars or throw all the “foreigners” out the country and everything in between.

The truth is that no one has a solution. But this week’s parshah offers an idea. We learn this week how the Jewish nation camped and travelled during their forty years in the desert. The families composing the tribe of Levi camped on all four sides of the Mishkan. Around them, the other twelve tribes camped, three tribes on each side. The Biblical commentator Rashi notes that the tribe of Reuben were particularly influenced by the Levite family of Kehot (of which the rebellious Korach was a member), next to whom they camped. In Rashi’s words, “Woe is to the wicked and woe is to his neighbour. This is why Datan, Abiram and two hundred and fifty others of the tribe of Reuben were smitten with Korach and his band; they were drawn with them into the dispute.”

The Midrash makes a similar observation, saying, “‘Woe to the wicked, and woe to his neighbours! … Korach’s neighbours in the south were lost along with him in his rebellion.” But unlike Rashi, who emphasises that many Reubenites joined in Korach’s rebellion, the Midrash implies that they were merely punished alongside him. In other words, according to the Midrash, the effects of a wicked neighbour are definite but limited. An evil person could cause his innocent neighbour to be punished alongside him by association, or, at most, to be dragged along to participate in his criminal acts, but he does not necessarily cause the innocent neighbour to become an evil person himself.

Concerning a good neighbour, however, even the Midrash agrees that the benefits are more than incidental. As our Sages taught, “any quality is more powerful when it is used for good than when it is used for evil.”ZZ [Talmud Sotah 11a] Thus, the Midrash observes that “Moses, along with Aaron and his sons, encamped in the east, and next to them were Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. On this basis it was said: ‘How fortunate is the righteous, and how fortunate are his neighbours!’ This refers to these three tribes, who were adjacent to Moshe and Aaron, and became great in Torah.” These tribes were impacted by their close proximity to the righteous in a meaningful and life-altering way; in the words of the Midrash, the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun themselves “became great in Torah.”

Extremism and radicalisation are poor neighbours, but when communities reach out in love and care these are good neighbours which not only are more powerful, but have a permanent effect.

Sixes and Sevens

In this week’s parshah we learn about the mitzvah of Shmittah. Once every seven years in the Land of Israel we refrain from working the land and growing new produce. G-d promises that in the sixth year the earth will yield much more produce than it normally does, providing enough food to last for two and a half years, until new crops are ready for harvest in the eighth year.

This extra output that G-d promises for the sixth year defies the earth’s natural ability. The sixth year’s crop would naturally be smaller and weaker than that of the previous years, as the nutrients in the soil deplete after five consecutive years of planting. In fact, this is one of the reasons suggested for the observance of Shmittah in the seventh year: to ensure that the nutrients in the earth will have a chance to replenish. Nevertheless, G-d promises that specifically the produce of the sixth year will be greater than the crop of any other year.

This promise is reflected in our efforts to bring about the coming of Moshiach and the long-awaited Redemption. The Talmud [Sanhedrin 97a] compares our history to the seven-year Shmittah cycle. After six thousand years of human effort to develop G-d’s world, the seventh millennium will be a sabbatical era, holy and sanctified to G-d—namely, the era of Moshiach.

Like in the sixth year of the Shmittah cycle, the question of “what will we eat in the seventh year?” is strongest in the sixth millennium. For with every passing generation, our sensitivity to holiness has only become duller in comparison to the generations that preceded us. How can it be that our deeds will succeed at bringing about the coming of Moshiach, if theirs did not?

To this G-d responds with the guarantee, “I will command My blessing to you in the sixth year”: it is precisely our simple devotion and loyalty despite the weariness of thousands of years of exile that will elicit the extraordinary blessings of the era of Moshiach.

Czar Nicholas I had decreed that young Jewish children should be forcibly conscripted. Known as Cantonists, these Jews had been snatched from their families when they were young children for a 25-year term of "service" in the Czar's army, where every cruel means had been employed to force them to abandon Judaism. The few that survived were so emotionally and psychologically destroyed that when they left the army decades later, they were never able to live normal lives. They lived together in little villages, apart from the rest of the world.

It was the day before Yom Kippur when Reb. Mordechai, a chassid of the Third Lubavitcher Rebbe on his way to his Rebbe for Yom Tov, arrived in their town. The residents were overjoyed. Such an honour to have a real rabbi as their guest!

"Excuse me, Rabbi, but we would be very honoured if the Rabbi would please honour us with leading the prayers of Yom Kippur." Asked one of the townspeople. "We only have one stipulation," the man continued, "that one of us leads the closing prayer of the holy day, Ne'ilah."

Reb Mordechai agreed and he experienced a Yom Kippur like never before. He had never been in such a minyan; comprised of Jews each of whom had been through hell, only for the sake of G-d. Although he had studied all the holy books and they knew nothing, he felt dwarfed by these “simple” folk.

Finally, at the end of the day, came their turn; it was time for Ne'ilah. Reb Mordechai stepped back and waited to see what was going to happen. Why did they want this prayer for themselves?

One of the Cantonists rose from his chair took a few steps forward and stood at the podium, his back to the crowd.

Suddenly, before he began to lead the prayers, he started unbuttoning and then removing his shirt. As the shirt fell from the man's shoulders, it revealed hundreds of scars; years upon years of deep scars... each one because the man refused to forsake the G-d of Israel.

Reb Mordechai gasped and tears ran from his eyes.

The Cantonist then raised his hands to G-d and said in a loud voice.

"G-d... Send us 
Moshiach! Redeem the Jewish people now! "I'm not asking for the sake of our families, because we don't have any families. "I'm not asking for the sake of our futures, because we have no futures. "We're just asking: Assey l'maan shemecha -- Do it for Your sake!"

And then he put on his shirt and began the prayer.

A Fair Challenge

For all its flaws – and there are many – the internet and Facebook can be harnessed for immense good.

The last couple of weeks, I have been enjoying watching the spread of the “Tzedokah Challenge.” The challenge is simple, but potentially costly. The nominee pledges to donate £1 for each like and £2 for each comment that they get on their Facebook post for the next twenty-four hours. At the end of the twenty-four hours, they reveal the charity that they will be donating to and challenge/nominate five friends to do the same for an organisation of their choice.

The beauty of the challenge is not only in the funds raised for many important charities, or even the publicity that the charities gets, but rather the hundreds of people who watch the challenge taking place, as most people have a wide variety of friends.

As a child growing up in a religious community, the concept of kiddush Hashem (bringing blessing to G-d’s name) and chilul Hashem (the opposite, G-d forbid), is something you learn very early on. Anything a religious person does is judged by a higher barometer. The same applies to any Jew, thus Israel is repeatedly condemned for acts that other nations commit with impunity – people expect a higher standard from them.

In this week’s portion, G-d asks of us, ‘lo t’chalalu et shem kodshi,’ – do not bring My name into disrepute – ‘v’nikdashti betoch Bnei Yisroel’ – and I will be sanctified among the Jewish nation. Rashi comments that there is a mitzvah of kiddush Hashem which involves being willing to sacrifice one’s life rather than transgress one of the three cardinal sins , and to be prepared to die and not expect to be saved. However Maimonides disagrees in his Book of Mitzvot. He does not include the clause of ‘not expecting to be saved.’ Why do they disagree?

According to Rashi, if a person is killed for their Jewish beliefs, this could be construed as a chillul Hashem – his G-d has abandoned him. Therefore Rashi suggests that the kiddush Hashem is when G-d performs a miracle and saves this person. However the person needs to be worthy to merit such a miracle; only when they don’t even expect to be saved – will they fulfil the criteria for the miracle. Maimonides argues that the act of being willing to sacrifice oneself for G-d – whatever the result is – is a kiddush Hashem.

Maimonides’ opinion resonates more with our modern culture. Thank G-d most Jews around the world are not in imminent risk of their life because they are Jewish. To sacrifice ourselves for G-d means to go the extra mile, perhaps enduring a bit of hardship buying kosher food, or not working on Shabbat. When a person commits themselves G-d’s standards and is willing to demonstrate that they are willing to go the extra step for G-d, it makes a kiddush Hashem. When a mitzvah is broadcast across social media for all the world to see, it certainly is a kiddush Hashem. 

Unhealthy Addiction?

This week the internet went crazy, and I mean crazy! WhatsApp, which is used by over one billion people, went down for two hours, and people were panicking.

We addicts rely on WhatsApp to communicate with absolutely everyone, but it is more than just a messaging app. It tells you when your friend is online, when your boss read your message, and it gives real time reports of when others are responding.

Now, I am in the inspiration business. It is my job to inspire Sarah to light Shabbat candles, to convince Mark to marry a Jew, to persuade Harry to send his son to Hebrew school, to inspire Michael to come to shul, to explain to Rebecca the importance and value of giving charity, and even to excite you about the Torah message you are reading right now.

What better medium to use than WhatsApp? When I send Jennifer a picture of a wounded soldier wearing tefillin, it is instant. It travels across the globe and I can see when she opened my message.

I also love WhatsApp when it comes to our Sunday morning minyan. I send a message out to my congregants “Can you make it to the minyan at 9am?” WhatsApp will actually tell me who is still sleeping, and who has woken up but is ignoring my message. It is that good!

The reason it is so popular is that there is nothing like it. It is free. You can communicate in groups, in chats, across the globe, with family, etc. Distance means nothing.

Therefore, understandably, when it went down, the world freaked out.

However, it got me thinking. Could there be a parallel here, to our relationship with G-d?

G-d is constantly online; His status is always set to ‘available’. He never goes to sleep. He always reads our messages. Send him a message from any country in the world, in any language, at any time, and He will receive it instantly. His Wi-Fi is constantly on.

Would you freak out if for two hours you thought you did not have a connection to G-d?

Can you (and I) become addicted to G-d?

Here is an idea: This Friday evening, around sunset, join me and make yourself a G-d-imposed 25-hour WhatsApp outage. You might even enjoy it.

P.S. I hope you are reading this message on WhatsApp.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

What came first?

From animals to humans. After last week's parsha relates the laws of kosher animals and animal purity, in this week's weekly portion we discuss the laws of purity of men and women, including the laws of childbirth, nidah (menstruation) and tzoraat. Rashi discusses this change and quotes from the Midrash that 'just as man was formed after all the animals, so too his laws are explained after the laws of animals, wild beasts and birds [written in last week's parshah].'

The comment is not classical Rashi, who normally limits himself to explaining problems in the literal meaning of the text. The juxtaposition of various sections of the Torah does not pose any challenges to our understanding of their basic meaning, so why does Rashi question the order on this occasion?

Logically the laws of nidah should precede the laws of childbirth because a woman must immerse in the mikvah after menstruating to be with her husband in order to conceive and give birth.  Yet in this week's parsha the Torah teaches the laws of childbirth first.

This is the question that Rashi is addressing with his quote from the Midrash. Since the whole raison d'être of having the laws of humans follow the laws of animals was because animals were created first, therefore, when we finally get to the laws of humans, it is the laws of their birth that we begin with.

Two opposing reasons are given for animals preceding humans in creation. Some sources suggest it is to humble the human, so that he realise that even the smallest gnat was created before him. Others suggest that it was that man would come into a full-formed world and would come to the realisation that the entire world was created in order to help him accomplish his purpose.

In truth, both reasons underline the tremendous responsibility that we have. Not only were we created with a mission, but we must be constantly mindful that we are nothing but mere foot soldiers in accomplishing it, dependant on G-d's kindnesses.

There is nothing like watching a newborn baby to bring this realisation to mind. A newborn is completely reliant on others for providing its needs. As we grow older and more independent, we lose this reliance and start to feel more self-assured. The parshah is reminding us that yes, we were last in creation, but that G-d has put us here for a purpose, and is here to guide us along the way.

Going Fishing

We spent Pesach in Stamford Hill, known better for its Chassidic community than its proximity to the Northern Line. If the general London attitude can be stereotyped as believing Judaism in the UK ends at the Watford Gap, this belief is certainly prevalent in Stamford Hill. I had amusing conversations with a number of people about the fact that there was a Jewish community in Leeds, even more so when I described its vibrancy. Conversation then invariably turned to geo-political world. As a rabbi from the “outside,” I was seen as an authority on Brexit, Trump, Syria and North Korea. My answer was always the same, “hearts of Kings are in the palm of G-d’s hand, [Proverbs 21:1]”.

In this week’s parshah we read the definitions of kosher and non-kosher animals, fish and fowl. During the portion, the verse mentions “the owl and the shalach [Leviticus 11:17].”

What type of bird is the shalach, listed here among the non-Kosher fowl?

Rashi explained that the shalach is a bird, “that draws up fish from the sea.” Its name, shalach, is similar to the Hebrew word for drawing out, sholeh, indicating that the manner in which this bird “draws out” is exceptional—it extracts its prey from deep within the water.

Rashi’s words also hint to something else that the shalach extracts from the sea in addition to its prey. The Talmud [Chullin 63a] relates that upon seeing a shalach, R’ Yochanan would proclaim, “Your judgments are (like) the vast depths [of the sea]!” ([Psalms 36:7]. The commentaries explain that R’ Yochanan was referring to G-d’s “judgment in the vast depths of the sea,” whereby He sends the shalach to kill those fish whose time has come to die. This Talmudic passage supports the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching that G-d’s providence is not limited to humans, it extends to all wildlife, plant life, and even inanimate creations.

This extraordinary concept is hinted to in Rashi’s words regarding the shalach. The Divine providence that dictates every detail of creation hides beneath the veil of nature, like the vast and complex world that hides beneath the surface of the ocean. R’ Yochanan’s statement teaches us that the workings of nature are neither random nor spontaneous; even the lives and behaviour patterns of fish and birds are precisely coordinated by Divine plan.

For those of us who spend time on social media or consuming the latest twist in political news, this is an important lesson. We can be activists and reactionaries, but ultimately we must recognise G-d’s guiding hand and dedicate our lives to where they are best spent – with increased Torah study and mitzvah observance. 

The Last Day

Pesach is a Holiday of Freedom. We celebrate and relive our redemption from the Egyptian exile over three thousand years ago. But its real purpose is to inspire ourselves for the imminent future redemption that will take place in our own lives.

Pesach starts with the two sedorim, two evenings filled with customs and meaning designed to help us relive the days in Egypt as if we were just there, to remember the bitter exile and the awesome redemption as if we personally experienced it. Towards the end of the festival is the seventh day of Pesach. The Jewish people had found themselves trapped by the Sea of Reeds, about to see their short-lived freedom about to come to a horrific end. Moments later they see the amazing miracle of the splitting of the sea and all the Jewish people finally escape their pursuing captors. When the waters settle and they see the entire Egyptian army destroyed, they finally experience another redemption, a spiritual and emotional one, as they realize that those dark days of exile are really over and the mighty Egyptian nation is now gone forever.

Even though we went out of Egypt, it was not a complete redemption and we remain in a different exile. It is less physically demanding, we aren’t forced to build cities, or flogged and beaten daily, but our distraction from G-dliness and the challenge to focus on spirituality, and G-d’s truth, remains just the same. The only difference is that we now have even harder taskmasters controlling us: Ourselves.

This is the experience of the last day of Pesach. A day where we focus exclusively on taking all the lessons and all of our inspiration of Pesach, from the seder to the splitting of the sea and applying it to our daily lives to help us escape our current exile.

With the coming of Moshiach, the world the way we see it will soon be changed forever. Evil, which we see as an integral part of life and which we cannot imagine living without, will be completely destroyed. On the very last day of Pesach, during the very last hours of the day, the power of redemption is at its greatest. It is at this moment that we can tap into the inspiration and use it to ‘jump’ (Pesach) out of our current exile.

We each have our own challenges. For some it is keeping Shabbos, for others it is giving charity, for some it is setting aside time of Jewish study and for other it is being more patient and understanding of others. If challenged, we might just answer ‘This is how I am’, ‘this is me and I can’t change’. But the truth is that these are challenges we all have to face eventually; we have to break out of these personal exiles and limitations.

We can harness the essence of Pesach and redemption to propel our lives to a level we could not usually reach on our own. The last hours of the Pesach holiday are when this energy is strongest. It is when we are most inspired. In Chabad Lubavitch there is a custom to make a Moshiach Seuda – a feast for Moshiach – when we conclude Pesach by eating matza and drinking four cups of wine. At these last few moments, as we all close our eyes, singing and dancing together, this is the very moment when we can feel that Moshiach is actually here, when we can believe that if we would only open our eyes, we would see him right there dancing with us. And if we truly believe that, with all our hearts, then when we open them, he will finally be here.

Wishing you a Happy and Kosher Pesach

By the Grace of G-d 

Isru-Chag HaMatzos [Day Following Passover] 
Zman Cheiruseinu [Festival of our Liberation], 5743 [1983] 

Brooklyn, NY

Greeting and Blessing:

...As has often been emphasized, the Festival of Pesach, the Season of Our Liberation, comes around every year, not merely to remind us of the liberation of our ancestors from Egyptian bondage, but also to inspire us to strive for a greater measure of self-liberation from all limitations and distractions which impede a Jew from his free exercise of Yiddishkeit in the everyday life. This is the meaning of the highly significant passage in the Haggadah:

"In every generation a Jew should see himself as though he personally has been liberated from Mitzrayim [Egypt]."

In this blessed country of freedom and opportunity, such total identification with the spirit of the "Season of Our Liberation" pertains more to the inner self than to outside factors, which are often beyond one's control. Here, thank G-d, there are no external constraints or limitations to getting involved with Jewish causes, especially the most vital cause of Torah education. It is only a matter of setting one's goals high enough to meet the challenges and opportunities of these times. Given the will and determination, the opportunities are limitless.

The vital importance of Torah education for the preservation of every Jewish community, indeed for the preservation of our Jewish people as a whole, needs no elaboration. But these days linking the Festival of Pesach with the Festival of Shavuos particularly emphasise this eternal truth. For, so our Sages point out, it is only because the Jewish children in Egypt received the proper Jewish education (under the most adverse conditions!), that our whole Jewish people, strong and numerous, was liberated from Egyptian slavery; and it is only because these very children (and Jewish children of every generation) had been made the guarantors of the Torah and Mitzvos that the Torah was entrusted to our Jewish People...


With esteem and blessing of Hatzlocha,
M. Schneerson

Toil, Tears and Sweat

Pesach is getting closer. The lead-up to the Festival of Freedom evokes feelings of anything but, as the cleaning and cooking take centre stage.  The main focus of Pesach should be each individual's personal exodus from bondage to freedom. The preparation for this is biur chometz – removal of chametz. While getting rid of all the chometz, we should have in mind our desire that just as we are scrubbing and scouring away even the minutest amount of chometz, G-d should destroy every last bit of the yetzer hara – evil inclination - from the world. We are certain that G-d, Who sees all the work the Jewish people invest in cleaning for Pesach, will do away with the unholiness and the exile we are in.

The effort and energy one expends while preparing for Pesach can destroy evil angels and provide a person with spiritual satisfaction. We therefore make that effort, and hope that G-d, in His great mercy, will accept the good intentions of the Jewish people and bring the redemption.

At the beginning of each year, the Frierdiker Rebbe – the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe - then the administrator of Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva, would present a list - with comments - of all the new students to his father, the fifth Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab. One year, upon receiving the list, the Rebbe took note of the name of a student about whom it was written that although he was learned, a veritable genius and academic, he had coarse character traits and his features lacked a certain refinement. After some thought, the Rebbe agreed to accept him, and added that he would have to be worked on.

As soon as the list was approved, the Frierdiker Rebbe set up a particularly demanding study schedule for this student. Soon after Rosh Chodesh Adar he received a letter from his father, the Rebbe Rashab, who was then abroad, instructing him to entrust this student with all the hard work needed for preparing the shemura matza, and asking for a report as to how he performed his tasks.

For two weeks, the student was kept busy with the physically taxing work of sorting the wheat, setting up the hand-mill, and grinding the wheat into flour. When the time came for baking, he was again assigned the heaviest work. On erev Pesach, he was awake most of the night, having been entrusted with doing bedikat chametz – the search for chametz - in the shul and the yeshiva building. The next morning he was up early to kasher the oven for the last batch of matzot.

When the preparations for Pesach were finally completed, and the hardworking students went to prepare for Yom Tov, the Frierdiker Rebbe instructed this student to learn a certain chassidic discourse. The bochur was to come to the Frierdiker Rebbe the next morning at seven o'clock, to review the discourse. On Pesach night he still had no rest, for he had to help serve the students who conducted their Seder together in the large study hall.

Nevertheless, the following morning our student came to the Frierdiker Rebbe, having mastered the discourse thoroughly. It was now perfectly clear just how much the study of chassidut mattered to him. The Frierdiker Rebbe reported all that had happened to the Rebbe Rashab, and on the last day of Pesach, when the Rebbe Rashab joined the yeshiva students at their festive meal, he commented to his son, "Just look how powerful is the sweat of a mitzva! Look how he has acquired different features; instead of coarseness (grobkeit), he now has the face of a mensch."

A United Response

The recent events in London have brought out the best and worst of our society. It is clear that, as we will read in a couple of weeks in the Hagadda, “in every generation there are those who will arise to attempt to destroy us,” yet at the same time we have seen the best of society too, people risking their lives and refusing to be cowed by terror. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.

Twenty five years ago the Lubavitcher Rebbe suffered a debilitating stroke that led to his passing. The day before his stroke the Rebbe spoke about the weekly parshah (that year was a leap year and Vayakhel and Pekudai were read separately) and addressed the theme of unity. This was his final public message to the Jewish people and to the wider world:

“… the message of Vayakhel applies to the Jewish people and alludes to their being gathered together to form a single collective entity in the spirit of the mitzvah, "Love your fellow man as yourself." This is possible, because all Jews share a single essence; all are "truly a part of G-d from above."…

“In simple terms, this command means that when a person sees another Jew, he should try to unite with him, for in truth they share a fundamental commonalty. This applies, not only to the Jews in one's immediate community, but to all Jews, even those far removed, indeed, even those in a distant corner of the world. Needless to say, the manner in which these feelings of unity are expressed will differ in terms of the practical means of expression available, but the feelings of oneness are universal in nature.

“Even when the distance is spiritual in nature, i.e., when another Jew does not share one's level of Jewish observance, one should focus on the connection shared and not on the differences. In regards to one's personal conduct, one must emphasize two modes of serving G-d -- striving both to "Turn away from evil and do good." When, however, one relates to another individual, one must channel one's energies solely in the path of "Do good."

The message is clear. A community that cares is a strong community, unified by common goals that transcend geographical and religious boundaries. A community will be strong and resilient. It was a Messianic vision from a Rabbi who cared deeply about the redemption, but it is a vision that we must strive to make into a reality.

From Sinai to Southbank

An international project featuring a rapist discussing his crime on stage has drawn both condemnation and support. The event was held at London's Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre on Tuesday evening saw a woman inviting the man who raped her to discuss the impact of his actions.

At first, I was taken aback when I saw the headlines, but then I realised that this is the week that we read about Moses’ appeal to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people following the Golden Calf.

There is, of course, no way to draw any moral equivalence between the two, and I do not intend to weigh in on the debate as to whether such people can even change and be reformed, or if they have an inbuilt condition. However it is rare that the concept of ‘teshuvah’ is discussed at all in the public domain.

Just a few weeks after the Jewish people were betrothed to G-d on Mount Sinai, committing to the relationship and pronouncing ‘we shall observe the commandments and we shall listen to them’, they already betrayed G-d and started worshipping an idol. The Talmud refers to Shavuot as ‘The Marriage Day,’ yet just forty days later the Jews were already straying.

Moses was on the mountain receiving the Oral Torah when G-d informed him of the making of the Golden Calf, and – without even knowing all the circumstances – Moses immediately started praying to G-d to withhold punishment and pardon their transgression.

The prayers bore fruit and G-d forgave the Jews, allowing us a glimpse into the process of ‘teshuvah’ or ‘return to G-d.’ Despite our many transgressions, the Talmud tells us that the gates of repentance are never closed and we can always return to G-d.

It is a fascinating concept. Although in inter-personal relationships we are expected to recompense in order for our teshuvah to be valid, G-d is willing to wipe out any transgressions against Him for a sincere apology.

At the beginning of the parshah we read about the half shekel tax that was levied on the Jewish people. The purpose of the tax was to ‘atone for their souls’ and Moses struggled to understand how half a shekel could atone for any transgression, let alone for the Golden Calf.

G-d showed Moses an image of a half shekel coin of gold. A coin given without feeling is cold and unremarkable. But a coin given with the warmth and enthusiasm of the soul's essence is fire - live spirituality -and can atone for the gravest sin. This was the coin of fire shown to Moses.

A Jew can never convert out of their religion and the deepest level of their soul can never get tainted. When we take this inherent connection and ‘re-fire’ it, G-d is happy to accept us with open arms.

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