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Rabbi's Corner

Self Realization or Transformation?

Having miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds into which the evil oppressors of the Jewish People were drowned, the Jewish People were faced with a new challenge. Bitter Water. What to do? A beating sun in the middle of the Sinai Dessert, nowhere to turn, the only water to be found is bitter and undrinkable.

G‑d tells Moses to throw a piece of wood into the water that will transform its taste. And so it was, “. . . he threw it into the water and the water became sweetened”. (Exodus 15:25)

What magical wood was this? Our Sages differ on this matter. The Midrash explains that this was oleander – one of the most bitter, and to certain animals, even poisonous plants. Yet according to the Zohar, the kabalistic work of ‘light’, this was a branch from the Tree of Life.

Here’s the question: Since this entire episode was miraculous in nature, for one piece of wood could not possibly transform the taste of millions of gallons of water (the amount necessary to satiate an entire nation), why the need to discuss the type of wood. What significance is there to this mysterious wood? And what can this teach us?

Each of us at one point or other has had to face ‘bitter waters’; the forces of evil, both from within as well and from without, that attempt to veer us off track It is here that G‑d, in His infinite wisdom, provides the secret to transforming and sweetening the bitterness and evil. Throw in a piece of wood.

According to the Midrash this means self realization: Make the bitter water “realize” how bad it is to be bitter, so that of its own accord, they become sweet. Show the evil how bad it is, so that it no longer wishes to be evil. Throw in a some oleander.

Yet the Zohar and Jewish Mysticism take a different approach – transformation:  One branch of life; one ray of light; one kind word, have the capability to transform a bitter flavor into a sweet one. Revealing a much greater good makes evil pale away.

“One candle can dispel an entire room of darkness.” – Let’s do a Mitzvah today and transform the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

The Egypt Within Us...

This week's Torah portion is, in a sense, one of the most important sections of the Torah. We begin discussing 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,

True Freedom . . .

The constant recurring refrain echoed repeatedly throughout this week’s Torah portion is G‑d’s message to the Egyptian monarch, Pharaoh, ”Let My people go”.

Many of us have heard this line before. But for some reason we stop a bit too short and don’t make it to the punch line of the message: “Let My people go that they may serve Me”. G‑d is sending us a powerful message: “Being free means serving Me”.

But how? G‑d’s laws seem so restricting: do this, don’t do this – that doesn’t sound like freedom?

It would depend, then, on our definition of ‘freedom’. If being free means the removal of all constraints on our development and self-expression; the ability to follow our every whim and fancy. Then a Jew serving G‑d can hardly be considered a free man.

Judaism defines freedom very differently. Acting as we please without rules or limits, Judaism tells us, is the epitome of enslavement. For in so doing, our urges, drives and addictions have enslaved us.

True freedom is the ability to express who we really are; to transcend and be free of our craves and urges. The Torah is the instruction manual to freedom. Even its seemingly restrictive laws are only there to allow us to tap in to our inner self. Because sometimes it is only through restrictions that our true self can come out.

We all mirror G‑d and were created in his image – that is who we truly are. Let’s do a mitzvah today and be truly free!

Is my name Max or Moshe?

 

How important is the preservation of the "ethnic" aspect of Judaism?

Over the course of the centuries, Jews were always distinguishable from their fellow citizen not only by their unique beliefs and rituals, but also by their distinctly Jewish culture. For the most part they conversed in their own language; whether it was Ladino, Yiddish, or any of the other "Jewish" languages which sprouted up over time. Jews were also distinguishable by their uniquely Jewish garb and names. In whichever country they landed, the Jewish community managed to create a sub-culture which effectively separated them from their co-citizens.

Today, many minimize the importance of maintaining these external expressions of our culture. They argue that this insularity was necessary when the Jews lived in the Dark Ages and needed to distance themselves from the rest of the population who at best were ignorant and superstitious. In a modern and enlightened society, however, there is no need to flaunt our Judaism by maintaining a Jewish sub-culture. Yiddish is for Bubby and Zaidy, and Jewish culture is fascinating...when viewed in a documentary or as a museum exhibit.

"Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it." Research into Jewish life in Egypt - the first time our people were guests in a foreign land - reveals an interesting fact: our ancestors were actually very lacking in the area of Jewish observance. They largely assumed the pagan beliefs of their Egyptian taskmasters and were bare of mitzvot. What they did possess was a fierce Jewish pride and a stubborn refusal to identify themselves as Egyptians.

It's no coincidence that the entire Book of Exodus, which describes the Egyptian exile and the redemption that followed, is called Shemot, which means “names”.

This is because the one thing that the Jewish People maintained in Egypt was their “names”, i.e.: their Jewish identity. Throughout the bondage in Egypt they never changed their Jewish names, they continued conversing in the Holy Tongue, and they maintained their distinctively Jewish garb.

Using one's Jewish name or wearing a kippah may not be as meaningful or spiritually uplifting as studying Torah or doing a mitzvah, but in a certain sense these symbols of Jewish identity are far more important. They demonstrate Jewish pride and dignity, they are symbols of our uniqueness, they are our defense against assimilation, and in their merit we will witness yet another redemption; the Final Redemption.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

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