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Rabbi's Corner

Let's Stock Up!

In this week’s Torah reading, we witness Joseph, a slave in prison, being appointed by Pharaoh as viceroy of Egypt. How does Joseph accomplish such a wondrous feat? By offering Pharaoh the following life-saving advice: “let them gather in all the food during the years of plenty . . . the food will be held in safe-keeping for the land for the seven years of famine”. The wisdom of Joseph carries with it an eternal message. Indeed, the stories of the Torah describe not only physical events that took place at a certain point in history, but also detail spiritual and timeless tales occurring continuously within the human heart. All of us experience cycles of plenty and cycles of famine in our lives. There are times when things are going very well: We are healthy, successful and comfortable. Often during such times we fail to invest the time and energy to cultivate meaningful relationships with family and friends or to create a sincere bond with G‑d. We feel self-sufficient and don't need anybody in our lives. Yet when a time of famine arrives, when a serious crisis erupts (heaven forbid) we suddenly feel the need to reach out beyond ourselves and connect with our loved ones and with G‑d. But we don't know how. When we do not nurture our relationships and our spirituality during our ‘years of plenty’, we lack the tools we so desperately need to survive the crisis. This is the essence of Joseph's wisdom: We must never detach the years of plenty from the years of famine. When we experience plenty, we should not let it blind our vision and desensitize us from what is truly important in life. We are now in a ‘week of plenty’: Chanukah - a bit of quality time to spend with our families, friends, and G‑d. Let’s utilize these precious moments, let’s invest, and let’s devote ourselves to what’s really important. In this way we’ll be fully stocked! Shabbat Shalom & A Happy Chanukah,

Chanukah Eight Nights?

Chanukah is eight days long because the oil which would naturally have fueled the menorah for only one day miraculously lasted for eight. Everyone knows this since their days in Hebrew School. But let us analyze this for a moment. Does this make sense? If there was sufficient oil to burn for one day, then the miracle lasted only seven days. Why celebrate the first day if nothing miraculous occurred then?

An interesting episode recounted in the Talmud (Taanit 25a) will "illuminate" the matter:

The Mishnaic sage Rabbi Chanina was a renowned miracle worker. Shortly after sunset one Friday evening, he noticed his daughter sobbing. Upon asking her the reason for her distress, she explained that she had mistakenly lit the Shabbat candles with vinegar instead of oil. Rabbi Chanina comforted his daughter: "Do not be troubled, my dear. The One who commanded oil to burn will command vinegar to burn..." Needless to say, the candles did not go out. In fact, they burned until the following night, when the havdallah candle was kindled from their flames!

This story is so striking and unique because Rabbi Chanina didn't respond by saying, "Wanna see something amazing? Watch this miracle!" Rather, in the eyes of this holy sage, vinegar burning was no more spectacular than oil burning. The only difference between the two was how frequently they occur.

If the definition of "miracle" is G‑dly intervention, then every event is miraculous -- for everything that occurs is a direct result of G‑d's command. "The Guardian of Israel never slumbers nor sleeps," but His watchful eye can and usually does express itself in natural means. Nature is merely the curtain which conceals the grand Puppeteer from our sight.

Nevertheless, we treasure miracles, and holidays are instituted to commemorate the more consequential ones. We cherish those precious moments in history when G‑d chose supernatural means to come to our rescue, when the curtain was ripped away, leaving the puppeteer exposed. Rabbi Chanina had the ability to see through the curtain every day, but we don't. To us, vinegar burning is a remarkable sight to behold.

Once the curtain has been temporarily lifted, the recognition that there is a puppeteer doesn't fade even after the curtain is restored. After witnessing vinegar burning, we realize that oil's ability to burn is also a result of G‑d's command.

The seven miraculous days when the menorah remained lit brings us to understand that the first day was no less "miraculous." Let’s celebrate and appreciate all the miracles of life!

Shabbat Shalom & A Happy Chanukah!

What Does "Israel" Mean?

One of the most frightening scenes plays out before us in this week’s Torah portion. Our forefather Jacob had to flee from the wrath of his brother Esau who sought to kill him. Jacob ran away and kept his distance for 22 years. Now, having married and fathered children, Jacob returns back home to face his brother in this week’s portion.

Jacob soon discovers that his brother is still and as bitter and as vicious as he was 22 years earlier. In fact, Esau is approaching Jacob with 400 armed men ready to attack. What is to become of Jacob? He is greatly outnumbered and far weaker that his brother’s battalion.

Then, on the night just prior to the confrontation Jacob is attacked – not by Esau himself – but by the spiritual Esau, Esau’s angel. The two wrestle and struggle all night long and, though Jacob is severely injured with a dislocated hip, Jacob miraculously prevails.

And it is at this juncture – at the crack of dawn - that Jacob’s opponent is forced to admit defeat. And he does so by changing Jacob’s name to “ Israel ”.

Why “ Israel ”? and the angel replies, it is a contraction of the Hebrew words “you struggled … and you prevailed”.

Friends, the lesson for us today is potent and powerful. The struggle of Jacob and Esau is a perpetual and eternal one. It is the struggle between good and evil. On a macrocosmic scale it is the struggle between Israel and her enemies. And on a microcosmic scale it is our inner struggle between our animalistic & hedonistic lusts and our G‑dly and holy soul.

To be a member of the Nation of “ Israel ” doesn’t mean that we’re going to going to have an easy ride in life. It means we’re going to struggle and experience hostility. It means we’ll be at war with our external and internal foes. It even means that at times we’ll sustain injuries and experience setbacks.

But it also means that when the crack of dawn finally arrives we will have prevailed. For ultimately goodness and holiness will outshine, subdue, and eradicate, even the ugliest of evils.

May we very soon experience this with the coming of the righteous Moshiach (redemption)!

Pressure Makes us Stronger

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all lived in Israel, a land that exuded holiness. And in this week’s Torah portion - 'Vayeitzei' we read about the first time one of our Patriarchs – Jacob – will move outside of Israel for a period of 22 years.

And it is outside of Israel, in Charan - a land of corruption, that Jacob will get married and build a family - the foundation of the Jewish People.

The Rebbe poses the following question: Would not Israel have made a better place for Jacob to have raised his children? Would not Israel have been the ideal hot house for the future Jewish people to be conceived and nurtured? Why of all places, Charan?

Says the Rebbe, the olive yields its best oil when pulverized. To produce gold we need a fiery furnace where the intense heat on the raw metal leaves it purified and precious. Jacob did not have an easy life, but it made him a better man and it made his children better children.

There was once a young man who had just come out of military service in the army. Upon his return, his Rabbi greeted him with the platitude, "So, Joe, did the army make you a man?" Joe responded, "No Rabbi, the army made me a Jew!" Apparently he had encountered more than a fair share of anti-Semitism in the military and it actually strengthened his resolve to live a Jewish life. Today he is the proud father and grandfather of a lovely, committed Jewish family.

Life isn't always smooth sailing. But it appears that the Creator in his vast eternal plan intended for us to experience difficulties in life. Evidently, we grow from our discomfort and challenges to emerge better, stronger, wiser and more productive people. There is always a purpose to pain. As our physiotherapists tell us: “No pain, no gain”. It would seem that, like the olive, we too yield our very best when we are under pressure.

One of the reasons we use a hard boiled egg on the Seder Plate on Passover is to remind us of the festival offering brought in the Holy Temple. But, the truth is that any cooked food would do, so why an egg? 

One of my favorite answers is that Jews are like eggs. The more they boil us, the harder we get. We have been punished and persecuted through the centuries but it has only strengthened us, given us courage, faith and hope. At every point in our history we have always emerged from the tzorres of the time stronger, more tenacious and more determined than ever.

Jacob raised a beautiful family in less than ideal conditions. Please G‑d, we should emulate his example. Wherever we may be living and in whatever circumstances, may we rise to the challenge and live successful lives and raise happy, healthy Jewish children who will build the future tribes of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

The Kabbalah of Oil & Chanukah

At New York Hebrew we began learning this week all about the holiday of Chanukah (to begin on December 24). Wow! already!? which got me thinking about the following:

The holiday of Chanukah is completely oil-oriented (medical concerns aside!). The miracle involved the Greeks' unsuccessful attempt to defile all the oil and the miraculous jug of oil which burned for eight days. We celebrate by lighting menorahs (preferably with oil) and eating oily foods such as latkes and donuts. What is the inner connection between Chanukah and oil?

The Greeks, unlike Hitler, did not long for our physical demise. They "merely" wanted us to abandon our obstinate loyalty to our "outdated" mitzvot and assimilate into the progressive Greek culture. It was the Maccabees, a fistful of Jews, who stubbornly refused to discard the mitzvot in favor of Hellenism and ultimately saved our people from spiritual assimilation and annihilation. What exactly are these mitzvot that triggered this intense battle?

Mitzvot are the directives which emanate from G‑d. Needless to say, directives which originate from a spiritual infinite being can be understood by us physical finite beings as much as an earthworm can grasp E = mc2. Yet incredibly - and much to the ire of the ancient Greeks - these transcendent mitzvot permeate every detail of our mundane lives. Before, after, and while eating; before, after, and while sleeping; before, after, and while involved in business - the mitzvot affect every area of life.

Now let’s look at oil. On the one hand the chemical makeup of oil causes it to rise above other fluids - transcendence. Yet on the other hand, oil permeates every substance it touches. Make a paper or food wet, and it will dry out after a short while. Pour oil on it, and it will remain oily for good. (Remember the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and the incredible damage it caused? New Orleans has long been dry from Hurricane Katrina, and Prince Williams Sound is still feeling the effect of the oil spill disaster.)

Thus, both Mitzvot and oil express the mergence two contradictory properties: to transcend & to permeate.

When we fuse the highest levels of divinity, the G‑dly mitzvot, within our mundane everyday life, we continue the Chanukah miracle and keep our oil burning - a flame that never ceases to die. So the next time we munch on our tasty and oily latkes, let’s make sure a mitzvah is soon to follow.

Shabbat Shalom!

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