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Rabbi's Corner

Jewish Education: The Key to our Survival

The Torah tells us that before Jacob agreed to travel with his entire family to Egypt, he sent his son Judah ahead to establish a yeshivah - a Torah academy - in Goshen (the Egyptian territory where Jacob and his sons would settle). Knowing that his descendants would face challenging times in Egypt, Jacob realized that only a proper Jewish education would give them a strong Jewish identity, enable them to withstand all difficulties and persecutions, and insulate them against the threat of assimilation.

From the Jewish standpoint, education is not so much the imparting of data and information as much as instilling within our youth integrity, kindness, and Jewish values. Information alone – even the holy teachings of the Torah – would not have preserved the Jews throughout the difficult years of Egyptian slavery. It was the code of conduct and ethics that were taught in the academy that truly distinguished them from their immoral and cruel taskmasters.

Unfortunately, many of today's "institutes of education" do not yet understand this message. While they impart to their students much important and necessary information, the underlying principle of moral relativism that is espoused throws in doubt all the vital ethics that we strive to implant within our children. Nothing is more destructive than the trendy notion that right and wrong are inherently subjective.

This fact of life increases the importance of providing our children a rock-solid and concrete set of Jewish values. This education begins at home but is given crucial reinforcement by sending our children to Jewish schools that teach the same values – schools that would make Patriarch Jacob proud.

The very first value we wish to teach our children is the importance of a fierce pride in their beautiful and unique heritage. We are different and unique. We are privileged to be G‑d's "ambassadors of light" to a dark and difficult world, a privilege that countless of our grandparents died to protect. And despite all the hardships, pogroms and persecution that we have endured, we are thankful that we are the Chosen People.

Shabbat Shalom,

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 ”? Because, says the angel, 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.

That is what “ Israel ” – both the people and land - are all about. Just a while ago in the UN, even as 138 nations on this planet sided with our sworn enemies, we ought to take the strength from this week’s portion to know that the night will not last forever. Very soon the dawn will bring goodness, clarity and truth to the world.

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

My wife Gillie and our children join me in wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,

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