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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.

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 »

Uninstall 2020?

When corona is over, I’ll open a new, successful business.

When this pandemic ends, I’ll visit my mom more often.

When the world opens up, I’ll volunteer to help the less fortunate in a developing country.

I’ll have deeper relationships, visit the gym more often and volunteer at the hospital.

When corona is over.

This pandemic has given us lots of time to contemplate and plan. And, it’s made many of us realize how much we could have done when things were normal. It’s also made us realize how much we should do once it subsides.

We’ve got ample time to plan now, but should that be our focus?

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At the end of this week’s parsha Va’etchanan, G-d reminds the Jewish people of their… Read More »

Outside Help

These days I’m all about outside help.

For communicating with people, I need phones and Zoom.

For groceries, I need masks and delivery service.

For safety and wellness, I need science and prayer.

Perhaps one of the realities of living through this pandemic is that we realize how dependent we truly are on others. Before we thought we can ‘go it alone.’ Now, we realize we need more support than we ever imagined.

*

This week we begin reading the fifth and final Book of the Chumash (Five Books of Moshe). The parsha this week, Devarim, shares a name with the Book (Devarim/Deuteronomy).

If you were a good student until now, you might find Devarim boring and redundant. That’s because Devarim is basically a review of… Read More »

Homeless Nomads?

Summer is a time to enjoy the outdoors. A favorite activity in Idaho is camping.

No matter the setup – whether you are in an RV or a tent – you are away from home. The amenities that you usually depend on are often unavailable.

The amazing reality is that, when camping, people usually are excited about things that they would complain about at home. At home you might complain about sleeping in a sleeping bag or having to collect firewood to warm yourself. But, when camping it’s a fun activity.

Obviously, attitude has a lot to do with it. The beauty of the great outdoors that Hashem has given us has a lot to do with it.

But, perhaps there is something else as well. Knowing that this is only temporary makes it a lot… Read More »

Following my Wife's Lead

Driving through Utah on a road trip, my wife keeps reminding me that she has got the view covered. I had better keep my eyes on the road. While I do most of the driving, she does most of the leading. It’s a lot easier to control a steering wheel than meals and squeals.

One of the mistakes of modern times is that we view the person at the helm as the true leader. If you are sitting up front, you must be the one in charge.

In this week’s parsha of Pinchas we are reminded that often it’s just the opposite.

As the Jews near the close of their forty-year journey, they are told about the inheritance of the land of Israel. Each household would receive one portion in the land. Although Jewish identity is determined by… Read More »

Better Than Nobel Prizes

Ask Google about Jewish contributions to the world and you will get many results about science, medicine, and Nobel prizes.

Jewish people are indeed responsible for a larger share of inventions and medical discoveries than their numbers call for. And, these contributions often reflect values of the Jewish people.

But, is that their most important contribution? Is being a mentsch, having a classy sense of humor or achieving academic success the hallmark of being very Jewish?

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There is an old, wry joke that if you want to know how miserable the Jews are, look in a Jewish newspaper. If you want to see how great the Jews are doing, look in a non-Jewish newspaper.

This truism was especially accurate in Soviet Russia. In the 1920s the… Read More »

Angel vs Man

I’ll admit it. I got on an airplane for the first time in months.

I traveled – wearing a N95 mask – all the way to New York and back within 24 hours. From the airport, I took a 15-minute taxi ride, spent a few hours outdoors, and was on my way back to the airport.

I spent about 18 hours of travel in order to spend a few hours at the Rebbe’s Ohel in honor of Gimmel Tammuz, the Rebbe’s 26th yahrzeit.

It was a very different experience than the last 25 years. I did not step foot indoors. I did not hug my friends whom I haven’t seen in months. I had my temperature taken in order to wait in line – six-feet-apart – with a mask. I had but a few moments at the actual Ohel.

Am I crazy?

Perhaps.… Read More »

Staying in Lockdown

The original lockdown happened many years ago.

Long before any governors issued stay-at-home orders, the Jewish people were condemned to a 40-year lockdown. (I guess several months isn’t looking as bad anymore).

As this week’s parsha Shelach tells, due to the sin of the Spies, the generation that left Egypt and received the Torah was denied its final prize – entry into the Holy Land. Instead, they would all die out in the wilderness. Their children would inherit the land of their fathers.

Initially, G-d wanted to wipe out His people and start anew with Moshe. But, once again, Moshe prayed for his people and G-d forgave them – with the caveat that only the next generation would merit to enter the Promised… Read More »

Get to the Point!

We are living through unique times.

Today, my brother-in-law’s father returned home in London, England – after a seven-week intubation at the hospital due to COVID-19. Baruch Hashem!

Unfortunately, my cousin – who dedicated his life to helping others – did not survive his struggle with COVID-19. This Washington Post article is but a small tribute to a man who gave everything he had to volunteer as a medic.

Meanwhile, race relations and issues surrounding police brutality are at a boiling in America like we have not seen in at least a generation.

Truly solving these issues will likely take many months, if not years. Does that mean we should resolve ourselves to years of suffering, fear, discord and tumult?

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At… Read More »

Lift Up His Head

In a meeting with a Jewish leader the Lubavitcher Rebbe once pointed out the irony that the Israeli government spends tens of thousands of dollars to enable someone to make Aliya, but refuses to invest smaller amounts to incentivize its own citizens to have children.

This leader countered that the Israeli government should not offer per-child stipends because that would also encourage Arab families to have more children, creating a demographic disadvantage to the Jewish state.

Sounds like a significant political quandary, doesn’t it? What would you say?

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We’ll get back to that momentarily. But, first, let’s have a look at this week’s parsha, Naso.

The word Naso means to “lift up.” It is a figure of… Read More »

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