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Rabbi's Blog

Rabbi Mendel's Blog

Rabbi Mendel's blog features his Dvar Torah (Torah lesson) column from the weekly E-TORAH, ocassional musings and other articles that he authors from time to time.
Your comments are welcome.

The War on Terror

This week marked 18 years since the horrific attacks of 9/11.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the United States launched the “War on Terror.” The tactics of this military campaign have long been debated, as has the name itself. Do we wage a war against a tactic and a philosophy, or do we wage a war against enemies? Is the military-engagement-with-no-end-in-sight a worthwhile endeavor? When and how do we win such a war?

Three presidents later, countless American and global sacrifices later and many political promises later – we have not resolved all these questions.

I don’t foray into politics, but I do believe that current events can help us think about our own lives and challenges. What can the… Read More »

Queen for a Day?

Though few and far between in today’s world, true monarchies still exist. I remember standing with awe as I observed the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace some time ago. But, the Queen is largely a figurehead in the United Kingdom. Real kings decide whatever they want.

Actually, this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, talks about kings. We are commanded, “You shall set a king over you.” In our storied history this concept of a monarch has caused great concern, admiration and discord. Of course, that was all a long time ago.

In light of the great progress we have made, how should we view the Torah’s eternal command to “set a king” over ourselves? Isn’t the notion of a… Read More »

Indirect Damage

As Hurricane Dorian nears the Florida coast, we pray that nobody suffers any loss of life, health or property. Hopefully, it will turn away or subside.

Even in a best-case scenario there will likely be indirect damage. Sometimes, it’s not the actual storm, but the storm surge, or the subsequent flooding that causes the most damage.

***

In this week’s parsha, Re’eh, the Jews are told to destroy and uproot all idolatry upon settling in the land of Israel. The Torah states:

And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place. You shall not do so to the Lord, your G-d.

Why does the Torah need to… Read More »

Begging

As a father of nine children (ka"h) I think I have seen it all when it comes to begging.

“Pretty, pretty please!” is something I have heard many a time. Tantrums for a toy are not foreign to me.

As a parent, I know that accommodating my children’s entreaties should be based on the merits of the child, the situation and the request. However, I cannot say that I have never caved in to incessant nagging. Sometimes, it’s the emotion of the petition, other times it’s the relief of terminating the endless badgering.

*

Perhaps, however, I can use a lesson on how to deal with nagging from this week’s parsha.

In Va’Etchanan, Moshe begs Almighty G-d to PLEASE let him enter the Holy Land.

This… Read More »

Which Side Are You On?

 We live in very pronounced times, to say the least.

I am often asked, “Whose side are you on?”

Sometimes, it’s sports, sometimes it’s religion, and sometimes it’s politics.

*

In this week’s parsha, Devarim, the Jews are stationed in the plains of Moab. The fifth Book of the Torah, Devarim, opens with Moshe’s long speech to the Jewish people:

These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan….

However, instead of employing their actual location (as done numerous times in last parsha), the Torah simply states that they were, “on the other side of the Jordan (River).”

Why the ambiguity?

*

The answer can be found in the context of… Read More »

Stiff Sticks

Today is the beginning of the Nine Days. It is a period of national mourning in the Jewish calendar, marking the destruction of both the first and second Holy Temples that stood in Jerusalem. Our history is littered with tragedy – and jubilation

As we observe the extra signs of bereavement, we turn to the Torah for guidance and inspiration.

By no coincidence, we always read Parshat Matot (and this year Masei as well) during this mourning period.

The name of the parsha, Matot, means staffs (as in sticks). It refers to the tribes of the Jewish people. Just as a tree has many branches, so do the Jews have 12 tribes branching out from the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

There are others terms used to describe the tribes. In fact, another… Read More »

When Bad is Good

When cooking at home, my wife often reminds to choose the lesser of two “evils” as much as possible. If it’s a choice between margarine and olive oil, go with the latter. If the options are sugar versus corn syrup, go with the former.

Truthfully, too much olive oil is no good either. But compared to margarine or shortening it’s looking mighty holy.

***

In this week’s Parsha of Pinchas we read about Moshe’s final view of Israel. He was, after all, denied entry into the coveted land. The Torah states:

The Lord said to Moses, "Go up to this mount Abarim and look at the land that I have given to the children of Israel.

And when you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, just as… Read More »

Oblivious

If someone gifts you a billion dollars but you never know it, are you rich?

If you stumble upon the cure for cancer, but nobody finds out, have you made a medical contribution?

If someone tries to harm you, but never meets you, have you suffered?

*

Imagine reading your own story, but not recognizing important parts of your life.

This is what the Jews must have felt like after reading Parashat Balak. In contrast to other parts of the Torah, this week’s parsha tells a story that transpires to the Jewish people, without them even knowing it. Unbeknownst to them, Balak hired Bilaam to curse the Jews. He winds up offering some of the most potent blessings.

It’s certainly a victory for the Jewish people – but they… Read More »

Reviving the Dead

Sometimes, we might feel dead inside. Yes, we are physiologically alive. But, our motivation has been sapped, our movement is heavy and the outlook looks bleak.

The factors may be internal or external, but the dilemma is the same. How do I crawl out of this sad state?

***

This week’s parsha, Chukat, talks about the laws of ritual impurity and purity. There are many causes for a person to wind up in a state of ritual impurity. None of them have anything to do with hygiene or health.

Similarly, the path to ritual purity is not through a physician or shower.

The concept of ritual purification is described by the Torah itself as a supra-rational concept. In fact, it is the name of the parsha. The opening words, “Zot… Read More »

Inspiring a Generation

The former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, has remarked that, “Good leaders create followers. Great leaders create leaders.”

***

Tonight marks the 25th yahrzeit of my dear Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory.

For me it’s a bittersweet time. A time to connect with my Rebbe, and a time to meditate on his leadership that has brought us to this moment. A time to thank Almighty G-d for the great privilege to serve as the Rebbe’s emissary. And, a time to implore Almighty G-d to end all the suffering in this world and bring our righteous Moshiach.

As I seek inspiration, I look at this week’s parsha, Korach.

It’s all about leadership. Korach leads a rebellion against… Read More »

Are You a Spy?

Nothing quite hurts a country’s intelligence apparatus more than a double agent.

Although the agent is supposed to be working for you, he is actually working for your enemy.

A similar situation occurs in this week’s parsha Shelach. Moshe send 12 spies to scout out the land. Their mission is meant to help the Jewish people conquer the land promised to them by Almighty G-d.

Most of the spies return with a negative report of the land and its people. They declare, “We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.”

As they say, “You gotta know your enemy.” Yet, the spies made a tremendous mistake. Their job was to ‘know the enemy.’ It was not to decide whether to fight… Read More »

Strong Foundations

Sports games are judged by the final score. Pundits talk about what a president will do in his or her first 100 days. But, history will judge them on the entirety of their performance.

Is there value in focusing on the beginning, or is keeping our eyes on the long game the best option?

*

The Jewish people wandered for forty years in the wilderness on their way from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael. In all, their journey consisted of 42 pit stops. The type of traveling was not always the same. In this week’s parsha, Behaalotecha, we see a stark difference in how they traveled.

Having camped at Mount Sinai for over a year, they are finally ready to move on. They arrived at Sinai seven weeks after fleeing from Egypt. We don’t know… Read More »

Roadblocks

Sometimes we can see our destination. In fact, it’s easily within reach.

But, there are roadblocks. The roadblocks are sometimes external. At other times they come from within.

Adversaries, curveballs and all types of unforeseen circumstances get in the way of our goals.

My own procrastination, self-imposed challenges and hurdles, addictions and distractions all block me from achieving the goals in a timely fashion. Even when I otherwise am on target to reach my objective.

How can we overcome these hurdles?

It’s easy to simply wish them away. But, oftentimes, they are very real. Whether or not they are of my own making, they throw me off track and I am unable to simply imagine them out of existence.

*

In this… Read More »

Stop Caring About Others!

If you have flown on a major airline recently you will notice that the boring safety videos are gone.

In an effort to get you to actually pay attention to the screen, they have been replaced with hilarious or outrageous videos.

As I sometimes travel with children, I am mindful of one constant instruction. In case of emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. The logic is simple. If you don’t have adequate oxygen you may not be in position to help others.

Let’s forget for a moment about the parental instincts. Instead let’s ask a more fundamental question. Should you be focused on helping yourself or others?

***

Stop thinking about what you can do for others.

Yes, I know it sounds harsh.

But, in a… Read More »

Yiddishkeit

Most American Jews today may not know what the word “lekach” means. Or “keriah.” Or “holishkes.”

Surprisingly, several outstanding contestants at the Scripps National Spelling Bee knew how to spell these words.

In fact, the first word presented at this year’s bee was, “Yiddishkeit,” correctly spelled by Rishik Gandhasri.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary translates Yiddishkeit as: Jewish character or quality or Jewish way of life or Jewishness.

So, is Yiddishkeit summed up by eating lekach (honey cake) and holishkes (stuffed cabbage)? Or by observing keriah (the ritual of tearing the mourner’s clothes at a funeral)?

I am a Yiddish speaker. I’m not a linguistic expert. I… Read More »

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