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Rabbi's Corner

Why are we called “The Jews”?

Many refer to the people enslaved in Egypt as “The Hebrews”, named after their language. In the bible, the Israelite nation is referred to as “The Children of Israel” or “The Children of Jacob”. Yet, for the past 2500 years or so we’ve been called “The Jews”. What is the origin of this label? Where does it come from? What does the word ‘Jew’ mean?

Perhaps these questions can be answered by analyzing the very first individual to be identified as a Jew: “There was a Jewish man in Shushan, the capital (of Persia), whose name was Mordechai” (Esther 2:5). Yes, Mordechai, one of the heroes of the Purim story, was the first member of our nation to carry the “Jewish” label.

Why?

The name “Jew” originates from Judah, Jacob’s fourth son. It was Judah who completely ignored all royal protocol and approached the powerful ruler of Egypt, risking his very life, and those of his brothers, for the sake of the release of his youngest brother, Benjamin.

Judah is the embodiment of the exiled Israelite who must walk a thin tightrope: While he must live at peace with his neighbors, follow the law and customs of the land, he must have the courage of his convictions to stand up against all the powers that be in order to defend his ideals.

Mordechai, ‘the Jew’, was a proud student of his great-uncle Judah. He knew that Torah law forbids a Jew from bowing to Haman. Even the risk of jeopardizing his entire nation’s existence would not bend Mordechai, for the Jewish People and G‑d are one and inseparable.

And the name has stuck.

Because the next 2500 years would repeatedly test our ‘Jewishness’. Under countless regimes – both friendly and, as was commonly the case, hostile – we struggled against friends and enemies who wished to impose their will upon us at the expense of our relationship with G‑d. Again and again we proved ourselves true to G‑d, earning the name Jew through oceans of blood and tears.  

On Purim we became truly ‘Jewish’. So let us celebrate this Purim as Jews. Let us fulfill the Purim mitzvoth and commit to add yet another mitzvah to our repertoire, thereby bringing together our entire ‘Jewish family’ back home to Israel with moshiach.

Shabbat Shalom & An Early Happy Purim!

The Reb Mendel I Knew...

Tomorrow morning we’ll be reading of our acceptance of G‑d and His Torah at the foot of Mt Sinai. And each year, as we read of this historic moment, we are personally called upon to recommit ourselves to accept G‑d and His Torah in our own private lives.

When I think about individuals I’ve met who genuinely committed their lives to G‑d and the Torah, the name Reb Mendel Futerfas certainly comes to mind. This famed and saintly man (who passed away in 1995) was the real thing! Even during his long harsh sentence in the Soviet gulags, his passion for the Torah and G‑d burned brightly.

So in honor of this Shabbat, allow me to share part of an interview with him:

What was it like in the [Soviet] labor camps?

They were days of light.

Are you speaking euphemistically?

No, I mean it simply. Those were the most inspiring days of my life.

How so?

Throughout my life, I always felt a battle between the material and the spiritual. In the labor camps, there was no battle. My life was all spiritual. All I had to do was learn Torah and daven (pray).

I don't understand, you didn't have to work?

Of course we had to work! In one camp, my job was to care for a herd of pigs. I had to begin at 4:00am and did not finish until 6:00pm. In the winter, it was so cold that once the straps of my tefillin froze. When I began to unwind them, they cracked. It was hard & crushing work, but only physically. My soul was free. There was nothing holding me back. All my energy could be focused on prayer & study.

(Read the entire interview CLICK HERE.)

Friends, this Shabbat we read about a commitment our ancestors made to G‑d 3329 years ago. Though we, at times, face hardship, temptation and challenges, that might appear to stop us from fulfilling our commitment, I believe we can each take inspiration from a man who, in the face of it all, remained a Jewish beacon of light.

May we strengthen our selves and intensify our efforts to keep the Torah and its mitzvahs.

Shabbat Shalom,

The Egypt Within Us

This week's Torah portion is, in a sense, one of the most important sections of the Torah. Parshat Beshalach contains a watershed event in Jewish history - the Exodus from Egypt.

The Hebrew term for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means barriers, representing all the forces that obstruct a person from becoming who he or she really is. Every one of us professes our own inner "Mitzrayim," those voices or powers that hold us down from living a truly meaningful and profound life. It may be anxiety, fear, addiction, arrogance, loneliness, despair, insecurity, laziness, dishonesty or envy. It may stem from negative life experiences, such as a dysfunctional family, broken relationships, health problems, mental challenges, financial defeat, or, heaven forbid, loss of loved ones. These challenges, among many more, can bring about a state of psychological exile, in which we remain stuck in the quagmire of torment, paralysis and hopelessness, never discovering our inner calling and potential.

In contrast, the Biblical story of exodus embodies the human potential to liberate itself from physical, mental and spiritual slavery. It captures our power to transcend the barriers that obstruct the heart's inner glow; our ability to encounter a beacon of freedom beneath the stratums of the psyche; our courage to discover our inner power and dignity.

No matter where you come from and how low your starting point may be, G‑d can reach out to you. You too can transcend your limitations, and become free.

Shabbat Shalom,

Is Religion Enslaving?

Free at last. This is the week when we read of the great Exodus. "Let my people go that they may serve Me", was the Divine call transmitted by Moses to Pharaoh. Now, if the purpose of leaving Egypt and Pharaoh's whip was to be able to serve G‑d, where is the freedom? We are still slaves, only now we are servants of the Almighty!

Indeed, countless individuals continue to question the merits of religion in general. Who wants to submit to the rigors of religion when we can be free spirits? Religion, they argue, stifles the imagination and stunts our creative style. Thou Shalt do this and Thou Shalt better not do that, or else! Do's and don'ts, rules and regulations are the hallmark of our religion; but why conform to a system? Why not just be "me"?

After all, keeping kosher is a serious inconvenience, Shabbat really gets in the way of my weekend, and Passover has got to be the biggest headache of the year! Is all this religious observance inhibiting or liberating?

BBC once interviewed Malcolm Muggeridge, the former editor of Punch, the satirical British magazine. Punch magazine was arguably England's most irreverent publication. It mocked and ridiculed the royal family (long before they did it to themselves). In his latter years, Malcolm became religious and the interviewer was questioning how the sultan of satire could make such a radical transformation and become religious? How could he stifle such a magnificent free spirit as his?

Malcolm gave the following response: He said he had a friend who was a famous yachtsman, an accomplished navigator of the high seas. A lesson he once gave him in sailing would provide the answer to the reporter's question. The yachtsman taught him that if you want to enjoy the freedom of the high seas, you must first become a slave to the compass.

A young novice might challenge the experienced professional's advice. But why should I follow that little gadget? Why can't I go where I please? It's my yacht! But every intelligent person understands that without the navigational fix provided by the compass we will flounder and sail in circles. Only by following the lead of the compass will the wind catch our sails so we can experience the ecstasy and exhilaration of the high seas. If you want to enjoy the freedom of the high seas you must first become a slave to the compass.

The Torah is our compass of life. It provides our navigational fix so we know where to go and how to get there. Without the Torah's guidance and direction we would be lost in the often stormy seas of confusion. Without a spiritual guidance system we flounder about, wandering aimlessly through life. Just look at children on vacation from school and "free" from the disciplines of the educational system. Unless they have a program of some kind to keep them busy they become very frustrated in their "freedom."

If we truly wish to unleash our inner spirit then let’s try to follow life’s compass. Indeed, our Rabbi’s teach "there are none as free as they who are occupied with Torah".

Shabbat Shalom,
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