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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.

Midnight

At midnight three weeks ago parts of the federal government shut down. At midnight tonight it will be 21 full days, the longest shutdown in US history.

Without getting into the merits or politics of the shutdown, there is a certain mystique about the clock striking midnight.

The secular new year began at midnight on January 1. The 24-hour day begins at midnight. Midnight has clearly set itself apart as a special time. Why?

The truth is that the modern concept of telling time, from 12:00 am until 11:59 pm, is artificial. Virtually no days are precisely 24 hours. 12:00 am is rarely the actual middle of the actual night.

For example, tonight the midpoint between sunset and sunrise will be at 12:52 am, not 12:00 am.

The artificial… Read More »

Fire & Water

When fire is placed under a pot of water, the water boils. But if the water and fire get too close to each other, they can longer join forces. Either the water will be evaporated or the fire will be extinguished.

An exception to this rule occurred in the seventh plague that Hashem brought upon Egypt. We read about the plague of hail in this week’s parsha Va’era.

Hail is a relatively common occurrence. In some climates hail may be the size of golf balls! But, still, this hardly feels like a message from G-d. What was so harsh and unique about this plague that would cause Pharaoh and his people to learn a lesson?

The Torah adds one detail that makes this hail stand out: “So there was hail, and fire flaring up within… Read More »

Are You a Burning Bush?

Are you a cedar tree, a flowering cherry tree or a thorn bush?

The Torah tells us that man is compared to the tree of the field. But, which tree are you most like?

Some human beings are like tall and firm trees. Some produce flowers or fruit. Some may be compared to bushes, humble plants, without the stature and majesty of a tree.

Just as trees possess roots, trunk, branches and leaves – people have beliefs, emotions, actions and influence on others.

***

In this week’s parsha Semot, Moshe meets his Creator at a burning thorn bush.

Why did G-d choose to reveal Himself to Moshe – and initiate the Exodus from Egypt, the birth of the Jewish people and the Giving of the Torah – through a burning thorn bush?

Rabbi… Read More »

When Best is not Best

You might be the best swimmer in your high school class. You might even be the best swimmer in your state. And, you ought to be proud.

But, if your goal is to compete at the international level, you may find that “best” is a relative term.

You might be the absolute best employee in your company. But, if you have a PhD in neuroscience and are working at a car wash, you might believe that “best” is a relative term.

*

The name of this week’s parsha is Vayechi, meaning, “And he lived“ – referring to the last 17 years of Yaakov’s life. These last 17 years were spent in Egypt.

(Parenthetically, the Hebrew word טוב (Tov) has the gematria (numeric equivalent) of 17).

According to the… Read More »

Inseparable

In 1985 librarians at the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad in New York realized that books were being stolen. Rare books and manuscripts were slowly disappearing.

It was soon revealed that a wayward relative of the Rebbe had been clandestinely entering in the thick of night, swindling books and selling them.

Eventually, a court case ensued. The defendant argued that he was ‘taking his share of the inheritance.’

On today’s date 32 years ago, 5 Tevet, the US Federal Court ruled that the books – collected painstakingly over many years by the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe – belong to the Chabad movement.

On the surface it seems like an inheritance dispute.

But, amongst Chabad Chassidim “Hey Tevet”Read More »

G-dless Judaism?

After the Maccabees successfully drove the Greek-Syrians out and retook the Temple in Jerusalem, their first call of duty was reestablishing the rites of the Temple. They found lots of oil in the Temple, but only one jug that had the seal of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) still intact. We are familiar with the miraculous ending of the story – the oil lasted not one day, but eight. Hence, the eight days of Chanukah.

But, if the Greeks were aiming to prevent the Jews from practicing the Temple rituals, why not steal all the oil altogether?

***

A Rembrandt piece of art is auctioned for millions of dollars and original classic cars are sold for several hundred thousand dollars because of their unique quality and limited availability.… Read More »

Bright Darkness

Starting tonight we will light candles for ten days.

Yes, I know that Chanukah starts on Sunday evening.

And, I am aware that Chanukah is observed for 8 days, not 10.

But, this year, tonight is Shabbat and Chanukah starts on Sunday. So, tonight we will light Shabbat candles. Tomorrow night we will mark the end of Shabbat by igniting the flame at Havdalah. And on Sunday night, we will commence kindling the menorah for 8 days.

Although they are separate events, I think there is something symbolic in the 10 consecutive days of light we are blessed with this year.

*

To gain some perspective, let’s look at this week’s parsha, Vayeshev.

In a nutshell, it tells of the story of Yosef being sold – by his brothers &ndash… Read More »

Do-or-Die Details

It could be an eyelash. It might be a dirty fingernail. Leave it to a mother to find something to need rectifying. There’s always a strand of hair that needs to be moved just a tad over.

To a mother, even a small imperfection is a glaring problem. Every detail is a life-and-death decision.

***

In the Parsha Vayishlach, Yaakov is traveling with his family from Charan back to the Holy Land. The Torah tells us that, “And Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Yaakov’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him.”

According to the Talmud, Yaakov was alone (away from his… Read More »

Holy Envy

One of the Ten Commandments is not to covet.

“You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor."

I’ve always wondered why the Torah needs to specify so many items. Why not just simply state, ‘Don’t cover anything that belongs to your neighbor’?

*

In Vayetzeh, this week’s parsha, we read about the birth of Yaakov’s children.

Leah gave birth to six boys and a girl. Rachel, meanwhile, was childless. The Torah says that after Leah delivered her fourth child, “And Rachel saw that she had not borne any children to Yaakov, and Rachel envied her sister, and she said… Read More »

The Success of Blessings

Thousands of Rabbis posing for a group photo isn’t your average photo op. Nor, was it the highlight of my recent attendance at the International Kinus HaShluchim. A grand banquet with 5500 guests (the largest kosher sit-down dinner in New York!) is inspiring. But, it was not the high point. Even if my son, Ari, was invited on stage to announce the roll call (see here at minute 2:57:18).

Last Thursday night I got together with an intimate group of my colleagues and classmates. Some of them live in Massachusetts, China and California.

Hearing their personal stories and reconnecting with old yeshiva classmates was the real inspiration. I sat with my colleague from Thousand Oaks, California, Rabbi Chaim Bryski. We spent five years… Read More »

Endless Light

Last night, I met my colleague from Bangalore, India, Rabbi Tzvi Rivkin, at the annual conference of Chabad Lubavitch Shluchim in New York.

(Spoiler alert: His son and my son Ari will share a stage on Sunday night).

I learned that he moved with his family to Bangalore ten years ago.

It wasn't something he was planning on doing. In fact, he was eager to join the ranks of Shluchim - but not in India.

He had visited India to assist Rabbi Gavriel and Rivki Holtzberg, the Chabad emissaries to Mumbai. Ten years ago, Rabbi Holtzberg begged him to move to Bangalore, but Rabbi Rivkin did not feel that he was the right fit for an assignment as trying as Bangalore. Again and again, Rabbi & Mrs. Holtzberg tried to convince them to no… Read More »

Hesitation

The Talmud lays out a key distinction between monetary cases and criminal trials. In financial cases (where a guilty outcome will only lead to financial penalties), once the panel reaches a verdict, it is announced and enforced immediately – regardless of whether it is a conviction or acquittal. However, in criminal cases the verdict of a guilty finding is always pushed off until the next day. If the verdict is acquittal, however, it is announced immediately and the defendant is released straightaway.

I can understand why we are more cautious in criminal cases than financial ones – playing with lives is more severe than civil or pecuniary matters. But, why delay the results? The court has already spent all the necessary… Read More »

Changing Course

There is a famous anecdote about George Washington’s youthful years. Once he chopped down his father’s cherry tree. When confronted by his father, he readily admitted his misdeed. “I can't tell a lie, Pa,” he is quoted as replying.

Interestingly, this story only surfaced after George Washington’s death. Having become the great general and President of the United States, there was obvious interest in his childhood. Biographer Parson Weems interviewed acquaintances that knew him half a century earlier to discover this gem of a story.

***

This week’s parsha Lech Lecha opens with G-d’s dialogue to Avram. He is commanded to leave his homeland for another unknown land. Avram eagerly complies with… Read More »

Automatically

Once, when the Ba'al Shem Tov was raising money for charity, he knocked on the window of a home but then immediately went on his way without waiting for a response. Eventually, the resident of the home came to the Ba'al Shem Tov and gave him a donation.

Later, the Ba'al Shem Tov was asked: "If you needed that person's help, why didn't you wait for him to come to the window? And if you didn't need his help, why did you knock on his window?" The Ba'al Shem Tov explained: "G-d wants us to make a natural 'vessel' for His blessings. I accomplished this by knocking on the window. However, I had many important things to take care of, and I didn't have time to wait for him to come to the door, ask me what I need, etc. I already had… Read More »

Opportunity

What’s less healthy than only eating unhealthy foods?

Although virtually all dieticians will advise against only eating fatty foods, they will agree that it’s better to subsist on a lousy diet than on no food consumption at all.

When your doctor tells you not to eat foods that are high in cholesterol, she doesn’t mean to limit your food consumption entirely.

In other words, eating food is healthy, not unhealthy. It’s just that without some restrictions it can become unhealthy.

*

This can help explain G-d’s first instruction to mankind.

This week we restart the annual cycle of Torah study with the parsha of Bereishit.

After creating Adam, G-d instructs him, “Of every tree of the garden you may… Read More »

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