Oct 08 2014

Come for Shabbos!

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One of the themes of the holiday of Sukkos is that we are all bound together. The Torah tells us to take four species: the Esrog, a citrus fruit with a pleasant taste and smell; the Lulav from a Date Palm which produces fruit but is not fragrant; Hadasim, myrtle branches which are aromatic but does not provide edible fruit; and aravos, from the willow, which has neither taste nor smell.

IMG_2693As we discussed last year, the fruit symbolizes the Torah inside a person, while the fragrance represents the Mitzvos, the deeds a person does which affect those around him or her. The four species represent those who have both Torah and good deeds, those who have one but not the other, and even those who have neither.

And what are we told to do? We bind them together! Every Jew is a unique and essential part of our nation.

Two weeks ago I mentioned The Shabbos Project, started in South Africa, in which members of their diverse Jewish community all celebrated one Sabbath together. And this year, they have taken it global, setting the Oct. 24-25 as the special Sabbath — right after Sukkos!

Would you like to join us? Here in Baltimore, a number of local organizations are working together to pair host families with Jewish individuals, couples and families which may never have taken part in a traditional Shabbos, much less attempted to do it themselves. Rather than try to make Shabbos “from scratch” that weekend, why not join us? We’re planning a special program with prayers, classes, and of course lots of delicious food and good company. Jewish men and women of all ages are invited!

If you’d like to join us, please send an email to office -at- torah.org and baltimore -at- theshabbosproject.com so that we can match you with a host family. And if you’re too far away to join us, please see http://www.theshabbosproject.org/our-partners/ to contact resources in a city closer to you!

Wishing you a wonderful holiday and of course a Good Shabbos!

Oct 02 2014

System Reset

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On Yom Kippur, we are invited to “clean the slate” of all the misdeeds of the past year.

In a way, it’s like hitting the reset button.

reset_button-scaled500When we restart our computer, all of the old programs that were sitting there, using memory and slowing down the machine, are cleared away. This is the time of year when we’re granted a special opportunity to reboot our lives, to start over without the baggage of bad habits. It’s a time to examine which of our “running programs” are positive, and which are simply slowing us down.

It’s also a time when we have a clear connection, when G-d declares that His Presence is especially close to us, to help us to move forward.

I hesitate to add this, or name the Rabbi who came up with it, but it’s a great time to get rid of “a virus.” [Aveyros are sins, and if pronounced like someone from the Hungarian or Galician Jewish community, it comes out ahvayris.]

So it’s important to not simply go to synagogue tomorrow… but to take stock of our lives. After a system restart, a computer runs faster and cleaner, and is more productive. Yom Kippur gives us a special, once-a-year opportunity to restart how we live, in much the same way.

Sep 24 2014

What’s New?

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Each week, as I write this note, I try to say something tied to the weekly Torah reading. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, I’d like to speak a little bit about Shabbos!

The Shabbos TableWell, not just the theory or regular practice, but a special Shabbos that is planned for October 24-25, Parshas Noach.

Last year, someone suggested to South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Warren Goldstein, that there be a project to help members of the Jewish community unite to observe a single Shabbos together. What became The Shabbos Project was a great success, with a very high level of participation. This year, they have “gone global,” sharing this initiative with the rest of the world.

Every Rosh Hashanah, we look over our deeds of the past year and consider what we can do better during the year ahead. What is our next step forward? How can we come closer to G-d and Torah? Considered in that light, The Shabbos Project is both a practical option and a paradigm. For those who have never tried to observe a traditional Shabbos, it is an opportunity to participate. And for those who do so every week, it is an opportunity to share it with others as a host or coach. It ties together our efforts to grow spiritually and in unity with other Jews.

As we go into the New Year, then, let us consider both participating in The Shabbos Project, and using it as a model for other opportunities to grow. What else might we have wanted to try to do in our own spiritual lives, but we have not yet done? Trying something for a limited period of time is less daunting than making a sudden, permanent commitment. And what else might we do that helps not only our own growth, but that of others in the community?

We approach G-d on Rosh HaShanah and ask for His blessings for a good year, during a time when, our Sages tell us, the Divine Presence is close, waiting for us to turn to Him. Let us commit ourselves to practical, achievable goals to stay close to Him in the year ahead!

Wishing you and yours a year of health and success.

Sep 12 2014

Every Step Up

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stair_stepsThis week, the Torah makes us uncomfortable. It tells us something that we don’t want to hear: that there are harsh consequences if we turn away from G-d and His Torah. We are His nation, and our lives and successes depend upon remembering this. The Ohr HaChaim reminds us that we’ve heard this before, in the Torah portion Bechukosai at the end of Leviticus. Why does the Torah repeats the curses, at double the length — and, unlike the first time, not follow with words of consolation?

He explains that the first set speaks to us as a nation, in the plural, leaving open the possibility that we might get the wrong idea: as long as part of Israel is doing the right thing, perhaps HaShem won’t be concerned about those doing evil. Thus the second set speaks to us as individuals — and, of course, the Torah cannot guarantee that every individual will experience, in this world, the consolation of Israel that follows. The Torah reminds us once again that every individual Jew is part of the entire nation, and we are all responsible for each other.

Recently, two Rabbis wrote op-eds debating the importance of intent versus practice. The first Rabbi argued that a person on a path of growth is “on the spiritual scale, light years beyond those who go through the motions.” The second countered that “putting too much emphasis on intention… [can] mislead people into thinking that the intent is equal to, or even more important than, the act itself.”

They are both right.

It is obvious that both the one who is filled with spiritual feelings of closeness to God yet does not act upon them, and the one who performs the Commandments but without feeling or devotion, suffers from a profound lack. Both of these things must travel together.

At the same time, however, we cannot minimize the accomplishment of being “halfway there.” The first Rabbi wrote his reflections after speaking with a woman who felt tremendous spiritual motivation, yet felt that a particular area of Jewish practice (which he left unspecified) so intimidating that she felt unable to move forward. And she felt unable to do even that with which she was fully comfortable, because of the philosophical hurdle she had yet to overcome. And on the other side, those who lack inspiration inevitably feel their observance falling away, because doing a ritual without feeling can leave a person simply feeling worse than before.

In both cases, a person’s bad inclination is trying to convince him or her not to do the right thing. Every single positive step has tremendous value, and that includes both the person who prays with sincerity but does not fully observe, and the person who observes everything but lacks emotion. Focusing upon the negative simply leads a person to a feeling of hopelessness, while placing our attention upon the positive leads us to aim higher in the future.

When I founded Project Genesis over two decades ago, I recall speaking to a Rabbi who was and remains one of the leading figures in Jewish outreach. Unlike many others, he was not enthusiastic. He said to me: “the goal of Jewish outreach is to help an uninformed Jewish person go from 0 to 1000. What you are doing can only help a person from 0 to 1!”

The years that followed proved him mistaken, in that many people found their Jewish lives tremendously enriched even if their sole source of inspiration came via the Internet. [Many of you have shared stories with us; I hope that if you are reading this and have a story of your own growth through Torah.org and other programs, that you will send it to us, either privately or in the comments.] But that was not why he told me, nearly a decade later, that he had changed his mind. Rather, it was the realization that one is infinitely greater than zero.

Every step up has tremendous value, and must inspire us to continue to grow in both spirituality and practice, every day of our lives.

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