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Wake up and smell the coffee

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Religion

There’s a well-known adage attributed to the founder of the Chassidic movement that bears reflection. Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov was a hidden mystic who lived in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine. Unknown to the world initially, he was taught the mystical and hidden aspect of the Torah by none other than Achiya Hashiloni, the famous teacher of Elijah the prophet.

Reb Yisrael was born into a dark world – the Jewish people’s morale and connection to G-d was at an all-time low – and it seemed that they were at a point of simply dying a natural death brought on by the vicissitudes of exile and immeasurable suffering.

Although he worked undercover at first, Reb Yisrael, who eventually got the title Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), revealed his teachings to the world and through his wisdom and insight, he revived a weary generation of Jews and caused them to flourish.

Today, the Chassidic movement is alive and well, and through principles of serving G-d with joy, seeing the divine hand orchestrating history, and showing genuine care and concern for one’s fellow, a fresh breath of air was blown into the Jewish people.

One of the famous teachings of the Baal Shem Tov is that everything you see and hear is a lesson in divine service. This world is interconnected, and G-d is found in everything and everyone. Also, G-d, whose guiding hand directs mankind, speaks through the natural. Humans just need to be perceptive and connect the dots.

We have and still are going through a very dark period in our history, and recent events often stop us in our tracks and beg the question: why? What’s this all about?

Now I’m no mystic, nor seer, but I’m compelled to ask the question: what lesson is there to be learnt from what I see and hear? This world isn’t haphazard, and there is a recurrent message G-d is trying to give to us.

For me, two themes immediately emerge.

The first is, “I can’t breathe”. It was initially sparked off by the cruel handling of George Floyd that cascaded into unprecedented civil unrest, and just more than a week ago, we witnessed the tragic, inexplicable loss of 45 holy Jews on Lag B’Omer, whose lives too were extinguished with the words “I can’t breathe.”

The second is the ravaging fires that we have witnessed locally and internationally. Mass destruction has been wrought on institutions of learning and healing, natural resources charred and burned to the ground. Just google “recent fires”, and you will see the world is burning.

What’s happening here, dear Baal Shem Tov?

We are in the midst of the Jewish year 5781 – the numerical value of 81 in Hebrew is made up of two letters, phey (80) and aleph (1). Together, these two letters spell out the world af. Af is nose in Hebrew, the aperture through which we bring in breath and life into our bodies. Af can also mean wrath, anger – a destructive force that ravages everything in its path.

Our world and its inhabitants are in turmoil. Our selfish greed to dominate has trampled on the inherent right of every human being to be recognised as a valuable part of society.

Peer pressure, politics, and man’s animal cravings has extinguished the privilege of every individual to be respected with tolerance, acceptance, brotherhood, and love. The world is screaming, “I can’t breathe!” Life has been sucked out of us, we have been trampled on, we are doing the trampling, and the world is calling out for help.

What happens when we continue to live life in this manner – when it’s all about me and nothing about you? We unleash the fires of dissention, hatred, and intolerance, and it becomes so loud and so overwhelming, it destroys everything in its path and leaves a world burned and charred.

The Baal Shem Tov, however, wouldn’t leave it at that. This viewpoint just engenders a sense of hopelessness and inertia. Reb Yisrael also teaches that everything in life is good, G-d is good, and one must look beyond the surface and expose the divine.

You can take the word af and reverse it – phey, aleph. That’s an acronym for the Hebrew words pla’ot areinu (I will show you wonders). G-d promises us that there will come a time when we will see wonders, we will merit the birth of a world that is filled with love, healing, and connection. The burnt ground will sprout new shoots, new life, and a promise of a better brighter world.

This isn’t pie in the sky. It’s a simple reversal of letters. It’s a simple change of attitude. It’s a commitment to live life on a higher consciousness where we make space for another and we understand that we are really one.

We translate this into action by performing acts of goodness and kindness and doing mitzvot (commandments of the Torah). Each unadulterated act of selflessness and connection brings G-dly light into this world, and it encourages the growth of new shoots.

This weekend, we celebrate the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (Shavuot). This was a wonderous event, where the Jewish people stood humbly at the foot of a mountain and pledged allegiance to G-d and His law. We promised to be faithful servants of the divine and a light unto the nations.

So, the lesson is clear. Let’s douse the fire of wrath in our hearts, let’s stamp out all the faribels we have, big and small, let’s stop trampling on others. Let’s breathe fresh air back into our souls. Let this be the air of a shared common humanity that asks to live in peace with itself, with others, and with G-d!

Come on. Wake up, smell the coffee, a brand-new day is dawning. It’s going to be wonder-full!

Chag sameach!

  • Rebbetzin Aidel Kazilsky is a radio and television host and an inspirational speaker who teaches the wisdom of Torah and applies it to contemporary times.

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Religion

Tradition in transition

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They say adapt or die. But must we jettison the old to embrace the new? Is the choice limited to modern or antiquated, or can one be a contemporary traditionalist?

At the beginning of this week’s parshah, we read that Moses was occupied with a special mission as the Jews were leaving Egypt. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. Long before the great exodus, Joseph had made the Children of Israel swear that they would take him along when they eventually left Egypt. As viceroy of Egypt, Joseph couldn’t hope to be buried in Israel when he died as his father, Jacob, was. The Egyptians would never tolerate their political leader being buried in a foreign land. But he did have his brethren make a solemn undertaking that when the time came and the Israelites departed, they would take his remains along with them.

Now, Joseph wasn’t the only one to be re-interred in the holy land. His brothers, too, were accorded the same honour and last respects. Yet, it’s only Joseph whom the Torah finds it necessary to mention explicitly. Why?

The answer is that Joseph was unique. While his brothers were simple shepherds tending to their flocks, Joseph was running the superpower of the world. To be a practicing Jew while blissfully strolling through the meadows isn’t that complicated. But to serve as the most high-profile statesman in the land and remain faithful to one’s traditions – this is inspirational!

Thrust as he was from the simple life of a young shepherd boy into the hub of the nation’s capital to juggle the roles of viceroy and Jew, Joseph represented tradition amidst transition. It was possible, he taught the world, to be a contemporary traditionalist. One could successfully straddle both worlds.

Now that they were about to leave Egypt, the Jews were facing a new world order. Gone were slavery and oppression and in their place came freedom and liberty. During this time of transition, only Joseph could be their role model. He alone could show them the way forward into the new frontier.

Ever since leaving Egypt, we’ve been wandering Jews. And every move has come with its own challenges. Whether from Poland to America or Lithuania to South Africa, every transition brought culture shocks to our spiritual psyche. How do you make a living and still keep the Shabbos you kept in the shtetl when the factory boss says, “Cohen, if you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday either!” It was a test of faith that wasn’t easy. Many succumbed. But many others stood fast and survived, even flourished. It was the test of transition – and those who modelled themselves on Joseph were able to make the transition while remaining committed to tradition.

Democracy and a human-rights culture have made that part of Jewish life somewhat easier for us, but challenges still abound. May we continue to learn from Joseph.

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Religion

The key to unlocking blessings

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What’s the key to the blessings we need from Hashem? One such approach is hinted at in the opening words of this week’s portion, “Vayigash eilav Yehudah”, “and Yehudah approach him” or more accurately, “And approached him Yehudah”.

Contained in these three words are a hidden message. The verse merely says “him” (without specifying a name) and consequently, we can see a deeper hint here. “Him” can allude to the true Him – Hashem. So the verse reads, “And approached Him [Hashem] Yehudah.” What does Yehudah mean? The name comes from the root word “Hoda’ah” (gratitude).

Thus, we uncover a secret in this verse: how do we approach Hashem to bring down the blessings we need? “Approached Him [Hashem] with gratitude [yehudah-hoda’ah].”

We often focus on what we lack, and appeal to Hashem from that consciousness to fulfil our needs. Yes, we must ask for our needs to be fulfilled by Hashem, but what’s the posture or position most effective in approaching Hashem? This verse alludes to approaching through gratitude. By acknowledging and appreciating the many things we are blessed with, we create a channel for even more blessings.

Rabbi Moshe Schnerb recently told a story on ChaiFM that illustrates this. A family of many children had successfully been able to find marriage partners for all their children yet for some reason, was unsuccessful with one daughter in spite of the fact that she was full of chein (grace) and beauty and was certainly eligible. In spite of many attempts, there was no success. Repeated disappointment and heartache caused concern and frustration. The parents davened and prayed, asking Hashem “Why, why” she wasn’t finding her bashert (soulmate). Their mood was bleak.

Soon afterwards, the girl met another candidate, everything seemed to be going well, and the good news was expected. At the 11th hour, however, the matchmaker called the parents with a heavy heart saying that the potential chosson (groom) had decided to turn the marriage down. The girl and her parents were devastated.

The father turned to his wife and said, “We must be doing something wrong. Look at us, so blessed with children all happily settled with families and health yet all we are focusing on is what we don’t have – our daughter’s success in finding her match! From now on, we approach it differently – with gratitude. We thank Hashem for all we have been blessed with. That’s our stance!”

Rabbi Schnerb continued that within an hour, the phone rang and the matchmaker said in excitement and disbelief, “I have no idea what happened, but the family called me back to stress that they definitely wanted to pursue the arrangement and didn’t want to lose this special girl.”

The change in focus to gratitude opened the gates of heaven, and the brocha flowed.

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Religion

A shining light

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I’m writing this only hours after watching the online kindling of the Menorah at the Kotel on the second night of Chanukah, which was dedicated in memory of Eli Kay z”l (who was killed in a terrorist attack near the Kotel on 21 November), and which has inspired what follows below.

The shamash (the attendant candle) on the chanukiah is not included in the mitzvah candles. Yet, without it there can be no light. It’s the enabler that creates the environment for mitzvah performance. Like the shamash, Eli brought so much light to those around him with grace and humility. King Solomon wrote, “the candle of G-d is the soul of man”. Within each of us is a divine spark, which connects us to Hashem and which, importantly, allows us to ignite and inspire others. By sharing his flame so magnanimously and selflessly, Eli was able to bring the light of others to the fore.

This “shamash effect” did not cease upon Eli’s passing. If anything, it only intensified. Eli’s passing has been the catalyst for the performance of mitzvot worldwide, whether it be a commitment to wearing tefillin, or the lighting of Shabbat and Chanukah candles. People have rededicated themselves to their Judaism in a powerful and tangible way. And surely this is what Chanukah is all about. More than merely commemorating a great miracle and the rededication of the holy Temple (from which the holiday gets its name), Chanukah affords us the opportunity each year to rededicate ourselves to our Judaism and to commit once again to our relationship with Hashem.

Pirsumei nisa (publicising the miracle) is an important element of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. It’s for this reason that we place the chanukiah in the window or in a public place. We want the light of Chanukah to be visible to all.

Publicity, though, it’s not something we’re all necessarily comfortable with. We may feel an internal connection with Hashem and with our Judaism, but do we openly and proudly display it?

Eli had no such problem. Eli was a proud Jew and a proud Zionist. He was not just a Jew at heart or an idealistic Zionist. He directed his feelings to action.

This year, when the world seems so dark to so many, let’s try to emulate the shamash candle. Let’s emulate Eli. Let’s be the light unto the nations – starting with our own nation. Let’s help those around us to rediscover their light. Let’s stand tall and proud. Let’s ensure that our fresh commitment to mitzvot endures.

May the memory of Eli continue to be a guiding light to us all.

Chanukah Sameach.

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