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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.

Equally Unique

Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday.

But, its principles are something Jews should celebrate.

The purpose of Thanksgiving is to thank Almighty G-d for the abundance, joy and freedom that the United States of America affords.

Since its inception – and subsequent adoption as a national holiday – America has changed a lot and developed in many ways. In addition to the influx of diverse peoples into the USA, the character of our nation has progressed. From sports to cuisine; from laws to lands – America is a very different country than it was during the era of the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers.

So, are we thankful in the same vein as our predecessors? Or, are we a new culture hanging onto an old tradition?

Read More »

Unaccomplished?

When reading the life-story of Yitzchak (Isaac) in this week’s parsha Toldot, I am amazed to see that although we are familiar with Yitzchak from birth onwards, the Torah begins the narrative of his life from the point of his marriage to Rivka (Rebecca). To be sure, we know a fair amount about him from previous Torah portions. We know that he was circumcised at eight days old; that his parents threw a grand party when he was weaned; that his father almost sacrificed him at 37 years old; and that his father sought an extraordinary girl for him to marry. According to the Midrash, Yitzchak also spent three years in the Garden of Eden. But all of that is a detail in the tale of his parents. In his own right, we are introduced… Read More »

Promises Kept

America just experienced an historic election. No matter what brand of politics you subscribe to, you would agree that this election garnered the most attention – and participants – in over a century. It’s uplifting to see so many people excited about partaking in our civic process.

This election has torn at the seams of our country. I pray that we can come together.

Although we are still living through unique moments of this election, some people are probably sighing a sigh of relief that the campaigning period is over. The endless ads, the incessant and redundant news cycle, and the shrill chatter can be grinding on our psyches.

During campaign season we hear lots of promises. Time will tell whether those… Read More »

Uplifting

I would not be exaggerating if I said that my wife’s older sister, Chani, may also be her best friend. Just a couple years apart in age, they are very close. Throughout their childhood, however, my wife was – and remains – taller than her big sister. So, Esther was the little-big sister.

But, regardless of physical height, Esther continues to look up to her big sister – to her sage advice, admirable devotion and tall stature.

This reminds me of a story from the youth of the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn, whose birthday is tomorrow. He had an older brother, Zalman Ahron, who was shorter than him.

One day, their father came home to see the younger brother in a pit with his older… Read More »

Right or Left?

A friend of mine, implying that we saw things differently, suggested that we take a bit of a break from each other. He didn’t unfriend me on Facebook. Instead, he pointed to an episode in this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha.

The Torah describes the difficulties that Avraham and his nephew Lot were having, primarily due to their numerous flocks and the subsequent dispute between their shepherds.

Avraham, in an effort to maintain the peace, suggests:

“Please let there be no quarrel between me and between you and between my herdsmen and between your herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not all the land before you? Please part from me; if you go left, I will go right, and if you go right, I will go left.”

My friend was… Read More »

Measure Twice, Cut Once

The popular saying in the construction industry is, “Measure twice. Cut once.”

The Russian version takes it a whole bunch further: “Measure seven times and cut once.” Apparently, wood was in even greater demand in Russia of old…

Although Noach was not American or Russian, he seems to have taken this expression to a whole new level. Noach spent 120 years building the ark, as is described in this week’s eponymous parsha. Why did it take him so long?

*

A high school principal told me he always waits at least one full day before administering serious punishment to misbehaving students. That way, he explained, I know I am not acting from angry impulse, but out of measured discipline.

Delaying… Read More »

Raising Cain

What’s not a sin, but can be worse than a sin?

***

In the Torah’s opening portion, Bereishit, we glean a great deal about human nature. We are introduced to the purest of souls, G-d’s handiwork – Adam. We also become acquainted with human frailty and iniquity.

The most evil act of all seems to come toward the end of the parsha, when Cain kills his brother Abel.

Cain goes down in history as a terrible fellow. And he was. Though he did not have the luxury of past history to inform him, human blood is human blood. The Torah underlines this value unequivocally.

You would think that such a murderer ends up in the dustbins of history and is never heard from again.

Yet, amazingly, we are all descended from… Read More »

Canopies & Walls

As soon as Yom Kippur ended, I looked around the canopy tent that served as our outdoor synagogue for the Days of Awe, and thought about building another temporary structure.

Within about 24 hours of the wall-less tent coming down, we had put up a walled, yet roofless, structure. Soon enough we gathered branches and added the schach.

The contrast of the two structures got me thinking.

The tent had a beautiful and quite secure roof. We were well-protected from the rain. However, it had no walls – which is precisely why we chose it, as extra precaution against potential covid-19 lingering aerosols that might escape a social-distanced mask.

The sukkah, on the other hand, has sturdy walls, but the roof is rather weak.

In fact, for a… Read More »

Peaceful Transfer of Power

Much has been discussed lately about the concept of the peaceful transfer of power in the United States, particularly as it pertains to the Executive Branch of government. Due to many factors and actors – including an unprecedented worldwide pandemic – things we have taken for granted for years are suddenly being scrutinized like never before.

So, does the Torah say anything about the peaceful transfer of power?

As you know, I do not engage in political statements. This is no different. I will not weigh in on the current debate.

I will, however, suggest that the Torah offers unbelievable insights and lessons in all arenas.

*

In this week’s parsha Haazinu we read about the parting “song” that Moshe sang to… Read More »

Nearly Distant

In 1998 I was traveling through southern Africa with a group of friends. Google Maps did not yet exist; GPS was not widespread and it likely would be of little use on Malawi’s roads. We were using an old-fashioned map to get from place to place. (Do they still print those?)

At one point in our journey we were heading toward the town of Monkey Bay on beautiful Lake Malawi. I recall heading out on a Friday morning with the goal of reaching Monkey Bay in time for Shabbat. According to our map, we had two options. One was with a so-called major highway (i.e. paved road) that would be over 200 kilometers. The second was a minor arterial (i.e. dirt road) traversing about 125 kilometers. We figured it would be nice to see… Read More »

Always

As a Rabbi, I often have the privilege of going behind bars. Visiting incarcerated Jews is indeed a privilege. It is a very raw and real way to practice what Judaism preaches – that every human being has inherent value and that we can always make amends, do teshuvah.

Thank G-d, so far they have always let me out.

When visiting these people, I am sometimes contacted by family members who are concerned for their relatives. The families, as well as the inmates, use the opportunity for greater spiritual connection and growth. Sometimes they will offer a donation as well.

Often, they will pledge to support the good work of helping Jewish prisoners and the amazing work of the Aleph Institute.

Often, upon release, they will forget… Read More »

Lost Cause?

One of my assignments as a rabbinic intern in South Africa was to visit businesspeople on Friday afternoons. In typical Chabad fashion, I set out every week with a colleague, searching for Jews. We developed a “route” – a standard contingent of businesses that we would visit each week, reaching out to fellow Jews with Shabbat wishes, Torah materials and an opportunity to do a mitzvah. For some it meant a schmooze about Yiddishkeit, for others a reminder to light the Shabbat candles.

The opportunity to lay tefillin was a key offering. One fellow was particularly irate at us for even asking. He immediately showed me the door and stated, “I know why you guys are here. And I want nothing of it. I may be Jewish but I… Read More »

Right of Way

Driving along the back roads of Idaho can at times be challenging. I recently found myself on a windy dirt road with little room for error. Suddenly, a car appeared from the opposite direction and we both came to a sudden halt. After a quick stare-down, I realized that there was only room for one car at a time and one of us would have to budge. So I reversed and went slightly off road to allow the other car to pass.

Who had the right of way I mused?

Sometimes, life is not so crystal clear. The moral choices with which we are faced can be murky at times. Without a strong moral compass, we can wander endlessly. But even with a solid guide we can be stuck, frozen in a moment of indecision.

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This week’s Torah portion of Shoftim… Read More »

Do We Have A Choice?

Never before has our generation faced such universal challenge. Our country, in particular, is enduring a deadly virus and a divisive debate at the same time.

The scientists, politicians and community leaders are all trying desperately to come up with solutions that will drastically improve our country’s situation.

Certainly, there are debates to be had and choices to be made.

***

In the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we are told, “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the L-rd your G-d, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the L-rd your G-d, but turn away from the way I command… Read More »

Animals First?

 

A friend commented to me that we ought to get a dog. Dogs eat lots of leftovers and are great companions. “Especially during this pandemic, they help keep you busy,” I was told.

I appreciate the suggestion, but with 10 children (בלי עין הרע), who were all home for several months due to the pandemic, I don’t think we are suffering from boredom! Thank G-d we have our hands pretty full with our wonderful family.

The comment, however, that got me thinking the most was that dogs clean your floor and consume your leftovers. Is that the way it ought to be?

A friend of mine sells pet supplies. He told me that during the initial covid-19 shutdown, Amazon was limiting shipments in order to prioritize essentials. Anything… Read More »

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