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The Rabbi's Blog

A Message from Rabbi Spalter

"The Public Menorah"

As I, and one thousand other Jews, celebrated Chanukah at the Weston Town Center, I could not help but marvel at the incredible outpouring of Jewish pride that was on display as we lit a twenty foot tall menorah together with Weston’s mayor and other dignitaries. One Israeli woman approached me last night and said to me with obvious excitement that she simply could not believe that this kind of event was even possible. With tears in her eyes she expressed her amazement at the incredible Jewish Community that she saw and met last night at the Town Center. She was so happy to see that Am Yisrael Chai. Her words touched me.

I remember when the Rebbe first began encouraging public Menorah lightings in the 1970’s. He asked for menorahs to be lit in the open with government officials in attendance and if possible in government buildings as well. The Rebbe believed that the message of religious freedom that the Menorah represents and the American way of life have much in common and are really one in the same. The early pilgrims fled Europe and desired to establish a country that would tolerate and allow people to worship as they wished. With hard work they succeeded to establish what later became the United States of America with its constitution in which liberty for all and religious freedoms were its founding principles. The story of Chanukah shares a similar message. The Greeks tried to destroy the soul of Judaism by outlawing many of its observances. A small group of Jews known as the Hasmoneans fought this oppression and eventually overpowered the Greeks and rid Israel from the regime that robbed Jews of their freedom to serve G-d. The Chanukah Menorah therefore became the symbol of religious tolerance and freedom.  The Public Menorah lightings on the American landscape and specifically in government institutions are therefore a most natural evolution. Over the past forty years the Public Menorah has been challenged in courts all the way up to the Supreme Court who ruled in favor of the Public Menorah and based its decision on the fact that the Menorah is indeed a symbol of religious freedom and does not violate the separation of church and state. Today the Public Menorah is an American phenomenon and is observed in thousands of American cities, City Halls, State Capitals, shopping malls and everywhere in between. This hard fought battle is now common place all over the world.

So when an Israeli woman with tears in her eyes tells me how touched she is that in the center of a city in the diaspora she witnesses a thousand Jews bonding together in unity, singing and dancing in celebration of this wonderful holiday, It behooves me to stop and think for a moment about this phenomenon; Where it comes from? Who had the vision and how did it become so popular? It was the Rebbe who had the vision and encouraged his shluchim again and again to light up the world on Chanukah and help Jewish Children during this time of year to feel proud of being Jewish. He wanted that America should always remember what this country is all about. If millions of Jews are proud of being Jewish and dance in the streets during the Public Menorah Lightings in celebration of Chanukah and their Jewishness, we have one man to thank; The Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory. His vision and love for Jews and Judaism and his appreciation for America and what it stands for, gave way to one of the most innovative and successful displays of the American dream; The Public Menorah Lightings.

Happy Chanukah and may G-d continue to bless America. 

 

"The Flames Don't Cease to Burn..."

In a few days, Jews around the world will once again gather family and friends to light their Chanukah Menorahs, eat latkes, give Chanukah Gelt and sing Chanukah favorites with their children. For Chabad Chassidim, Chanukah also means organizing large Menorah lightings in City Halls, Town Center’s, Shopping malls and anywhere and everywhere we can spread the miracle and message of Chanukah. In addition, the Rebbe’s emissaries visit army bases, prisons, hospitals and senior citizen’s homes to bring the light and taste of Chanukah to those Jews who the larger community might have forgotten but who desperately long for a little holiness and light to brighten up their nights and lives in the sometimes never ending loneliness they experience.

Indeed the Chanukah lights have lit up millions of hearts and have given hope to our people during the long and painful exile we have endured over the past two thousand years. I remember the stories we were told of Jews during the holocaust who managed to create makeshift menorah’s made out of whatever they could get their hands on, and so heroically lit them in Auschwitz, Bergen Belzen and other camps. Or the stories of Chassidim in Siberian gulags who saved up butter and egg shells to be turned into menorahs and oil and then cut pieces of their clothing so they can be turned into wicks. These legendary Jews knew the secret of Jewish survival. They knew that as long as those small but bright lights continue to burn, the Jewish people and Judaism will survive.

The Chanukah candles tell a story of their own. When I gather my family around the menorah and light the candles, I share with them the message and story that those small flickering candles are telling us. It’s the story of the Jewish people. We have lived and continue to live in a very dark world, in a world that has tried over and over again to extinguish the candle of Torah and Judaism. Whether it was the Hellenist Greeks, the Romans, the crusaders and inquisitionists, Stalin and Hitler, Hamas or Radical Islam the aim was the same; to extinguish the small flame of the Menorah of Jewishness. Indeed many times it looked as if the flame was so tiny and about to expire, but the miracle flame always managed to continue to hold on and survive the strong winds. It is this story that the candles are telling us every night of Chanukah and we must listen to the candles as they relate their/our story.

Today, thank G-d, we don’t have to save butter for oil or egg shells for candle holders. Today we can light beautiful and large menorahs by our doors, windows and in town squares. But make no mistake, the winds and storms still rage out there and continue to threaten to blow out our flames. I am referring to the winds of atheism, apathy and assimilation. They might be different and more subtle but equally and maybe ever more dangerous than the winds of yesteryear.

So this Tuesday night gather around your beautiful menorahs and light up the lights and allow them to tell their story. Listen and internalize their message: that these candles will never cease, these flames will always burn, and these lights will forever continue to brighten up the dark and dreary world we inhabit.

Have a happy and meaningful Chanukah and Am Yisrael Chai.

 

Beyond the Surface

This coming Thursday, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of the 19th of Kislev. On this day in 1799 the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism was released and set free from a very dangerous imprisonment. The story surrounding his arrest, the charges, the interrogation and eventual release is written up in great detail and is beyond the scope of this article.

The Jewish world saw his release as a vindication of the entire Chassidic movement and it was from that day onward that Chassidic teachings went viral. Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw his ordeal as one that originated in heaven. He understood that if he, as the leader of Chassidism, was being challenged down here in this corporeal world, it is only a sign that Chassidism was being challenged in the upper realms as well. He wondered if he and his colleagues were not spreading this lofty teaching too much. Maybe the world is not yet ready for the ‘crown jewel’ of the Torah to be spread with such intensity. But then came the 19th of Kislev and his release. That was the sign that from on high Chassidism was vindicated and it was time for this holy and spiritual teaching to be spread to all four corners of the world.

Chassidism is referred to as the ‘Soul of the Torah’. Like with a body and soul, the soul gives life and vitality to the body. With the Torah it’s the same way. The ‘body’ of Torah is the laws of the Torah and their physical practice, like lighting Shabbos candles and giving charity or eating Matzah on Pesach. The ‘soul’ would be the life behind those practices; the G-dly energy and mystical revelations that result from those actions. And trust me, when a Jew is aware of the higher truth and ‘soul’ of the Mitzvot we observe, they become alive. They become soulful and energized with great vitality. 

They tell a story of a Chassidic master who was once challenged by an opponent of Chassidism. The opponent said to him; you Chassidim learn and study so much Chassidic and Kabbalistic knowledge, but at the end of the day what difference is there between us? We both put on the same tefillin, we both wrap ourselves in the same Tallis and we basically do all the mitzvoth just like you do with no difference at all, so what’s all the fuss of learning Tanya, Kaballah and the ‘soul’ of Torah? The rebbe answered him and said; it’s like two people eating the same chicken soup with one difference, one is eating it while hot and the other is eating it cold. They might both be eating the same ingredients but the difference is vast. One can hardly say that they are both experiencing the same thing. And indeed a mitzvah that is observed with an understanding of the soul behind it is warm, its alive, its vibrant and so much deeper.

Let me apply this to something very current and on the minds of all of us; the tragic death of Eric Garner and the raw emotions that burst forth following the decision by the grand jury not to indict the police officer who killed him. I don’t want to get into the specifics or point fingers and decide whether or not the jury did justice or not. Maybe we will know more as the details of the grand jury proceedings are made available. What I do want to point out is the fact that I believe that America has a real problem and it’s not a civil rights problem. It's not a black vs. white problem. It's the problem of a vicious cycle that's compounded by the continuous fostering of stereotypes, accusations and recriminations. It's a problem of how we look at each other. Whether you're a cop looking at a big black man standing on the street, or you're a black teenager looking at a cop standing in front of a protesting crowd, or you're just a regular citizen looking at a fellow citizen - what is the first thing you see? That person's color? Their external qualities? Or their human soul, made in the image of G-d? Can we as a society look deeper? Can we reach beyond the surface or are we just superficial and skin deep?

The holiday of Kislev 19, when we were given the ‘soul’ of torah, is a time to reflect on the ’soul’ of everything. The inner truth of every human being, and indeed of everything, is G-dliness. All we need to do is reveal it to ourselves and eachother, because when we do, we realize that the entire creation is really one essence: G-d. And that, by the way, is what we mean when we say in the Shma prayer that Hashem Echod; G-d is one. It means that everything is G-d and G-d is everything, and that too was taught and expounded upon at great length in the teachings of Chassidism. 

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