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The Rabbi's Blog

A Message from Rabbi Spalter

What's the Celebration?

I’m a little confused. We are about to celebrate Shavuot and I’m told it is the "Season of the Giving of the Torah." But isn’t there another holiday when we celebrate with the Torah? Simchat Torah, right? So why are we celebrating twice? Why two festivals to remember the same thing?

The answer is that on Simchat Torah we conclude our annual reading of the Torah. We end the Book of - Devarim - Deuteronomy and immediately begin anew the Book of - Breishis - Genesis. We have reason to rejoice at the achievements of the year gone by, so we celebrate.

And how do we celebrate? We dance with the Torah. Is the Torah scroll on the bimah (reading table)? No. It is in the aisles. Is it open? No, it is closed and covered. Why? Because on Simchat Torah we are reminded that even if a Jew has, G-d forbid, not opened the Torah all year long, he still has a spiritual place in the Torah. Even if, for him, the Torah has been a closed book, nevertheless, every Jew has a deep-rooted, innate connection to Torah. As we read on Simchat Torah, "The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the entire Congregation of Jacob." Each and every single Jew, the entire congregation, has an intrinsic relationship with Torah. Torah is not the private property of the intellectual elite. Scholars or simple folk, academics or the unlettered, Torah belongs to one and all.

But there comes a time when you have to open the book! We don’t dance with the Torah wrapped in its mantle all year long. That is for Simchat Torah. But we also have to open, read, study, ask, learn and become more familiar with our heritage. We need to get to know Torah from the inside, to understand the Torah as a textbook too.

That time is every day. But the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah is Shavuot. That is when we celebrate the Torah as a book of wisdom, as a moral code, an ethical system, and a guiding light in our lives. Shavuot reminds us that the Torah is not only a beautiful, cherished ceremonial ornament to revere and dance with on Simchat Torah, but the source of all our wisdom, knowledge and understanding about life and how we are to live it.

A number of years ago, at a celebration to welcome a new Torah Scroll into a synagogue, the guest speaker shared a story with everyone. Here it is:

There were two sisters. One married a rich man; the other’s husband was poor. Yet, ironically, it was the wealthy sister who was the unhappy one. Her sister couldn’t understand why she should be so miserable. “He supports you handsomely. He buys you beautiful clothes, expensive jewelry. Just look at your diamonds. Why are you so unhappy?”

The wealthy sister replied. “Actually, I am jealous of you, my sister. You have a wonderful, loving relationship with your husband. Yes, my husband does buy me expensive things. It is true that he does spend money on me. But your husband spends time with you and mine does not.”

So while it may be true that we adorn our Torahs with exquisite velvet mantles, precious silver crowns, breastplates, bells and pointers, all the expensive ornaments don’t come close to spending time with the Torah. And the Torah is unhappy and cries out, “Thanks for the silver, thanks for the décor, but what I really want is you! I want your time, your mind. I want you.”

It is surely one of the sad ironies of contemporary Jewish life that this most educated generation should be so ignorant of its own heritage. How is it that we have produced the most successful people in the professions, in commerce - titans of industry - and yet knowledge of our priceless Jewish wisdom is at an all-time low? Why is it that our most brilliant legal minds have never even read a single page of the Talmud? Why should our most sophisticated computer whiz kids not know which way to hold a prayer book? Why should Ivy League professors be content with the Jewish education of a 12 year old, and otherwise intelligent, mature adults satisfy themselves with the Jewish syllabus of a nursery school?

So, on Shavuot, we are reminded that we need to open the book and spend some quality time, meaningful study time with the Torah.

Practically speaking, this is the season to commit oneself to a regular time for Torah study. In every community there are so many options to choose from. Wherever we are in our Jewish education, it must be ongoing. We must have fixed times for learning Torah and those times should be non-negotiable.

And because this is the Season of the Giving of the Torah, we are assured that the Torah will indeed be given to us once again if we make the sincere effort to acquire it. Hopefully, this Shavuot will be for us not only the Season of the Giving of the Torah – that is G-d’s job - but the Season of Receiving the Torah – that is our job.

(Parts taken from Chabad.Org)

If you are interested in educating yourself with the knowledge of the Book, please call me 954-661-6955 for a full schedule of classes or for private one on one learning.

Wishing you a good Shabbos and a joyous Shavuot.

 

 

"They Will Dwell Peacefully In Their Land"

This morning, on one of the news websites, I saw that the European Union warned Israel that if they don’t restart the “peace Talks” with the Palestinians then Israel will face possible sanctions. The article went on to say that the Europeans were just waiting for Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government and now that he has put it together they are eager to push for peace talks and finally have peace in the Middle East. I assume that together with the warning came a promise as well that if Israel does engage in talks with the Palestinians, the EU will of course be our best friends. It goes without saying that when they say “peace talks” they mean the creation of a Palestinian State living side by side with Israel. For example Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood, all very active and a majority in Palestinian society, will live side by side with Israel. When the Israeli nudnik Prime Minister reminds the world that these groups have no intention to live side by side with Israel and that it would be reckless beyond imagination for Israel to create a state for these groups just 8 miles from Ben Gurion Airport, the world simply does not hear or accept.

This morning I also saw the opening words of this week’s Torah portion of Bechukotai. It says the following: if you will go in My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, then I will provide rain…..produce…..fruit….. You will eat your bread to satiety and you will dwell securely in your land…. I will provide peace in the land etc.”

In these words G-d promises us that if we live by His word all will be good. There will be security and peace. Imagine that, no need for Peace summits, neither in Oslo nor in Camp David or anywhere else for that matter. If Israel and its people remain loyal to G-d and to its mission to be a light onto the nations we will have everything we need. In other words G-d is telling us that our physical success i.e. security, peace, rain and produce are dependent on our spiritual success. G-d wants us to understand that Israel has a unique mission. He wants us to remember that the main thing we should export to the world is G-dliness, Torah and morality. If we do that then we will be successful and we will be able to export modern advances and all the other fantastic things we have been exporting to the world during the past few decades.

I pray for the new government of Israel that they should be strong, determined and unwavering in their responsibility toward the people of Israel. Israel will be facing some very difficult times in the near future with pressure mounting from all corners of the world. The international community and the US included plan to destroy Netanyahu if he dares to undermine the two state solutions. He will be under enormous pressure to risk its security for empty promises of peace. We have been down that road before and it has turned out to be a farce and very risky indeed. Thousands were killed in the past 2 decades because we have taken these “risks for peace”. To Mr. Netanyahu and his partners in the government I say: Chazak Ve’ematz, be strong and courageous. If you will trust in G-d and the Torah and its ways of peace you will be successful. If Israel will remember its mission and will engage in fulfilling it, we will suddenly find an international community that is willing to hear us and respect us. They will come around. They too will understand that our security cannot be compromised one iota. They will not only support Israel and its rights but they will thank us for our leadership. The world needs leadership and Israel must provide it, and when we do we will truly be loved.

May that day arrive soon.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom. 

In Memory of My Neice, Chaya

This past Sunday, my eleven year old niece, Chaya Mushka Spalter (the daughter of my younger brother) passed away at her home in Los Angeles. Chaya was ill for the past 32 months with Ewing Sarcoma, a form of pediatric cancer, which ultimately took her life and left her parents and family shattered. I want to dedicate this column to her memory and share some thoughts about her and her incredible family from whom I have learned so much during these last two and a half years.

Chaya was a child who lived life to the fullest. She was here on earth for a relatively short time, but her 11 years with us were full and complete. She never complained about her illness. Chaya fought it as best she could and never let it interfere with her life, her goals or her incredible attitude towards life in general. Her classmates, friends, teachers and anyone who knew her, talk about her loving kindness for all people regardless of who they were.

She had a friend, a neighbor in her building, whose father, a rabbi, is bedridden battling ALS. Chaya would go to their apartment and together with her friend (the rabbi’s daughter) would perform shows for the rabbi to cheer him up whenever she was able. She did this even while she was terribly ill fighting her own disease. This was characteristic of Chaya. She laughed, played and brought energy to her surroundings all the time. Instead of people cheering her up, she would lift up all those around her.

I had the privilege of being in Los Angeles for her brother’s Bar Mitzvah in October of last year at which time I got to know her better. Chaya was visibly sick, but judging from her attitude and behavior, you would never know it. She smiled, had fun with all of us and did not miss a beat. I learned so much from her in the past 32 months. Her positive attitude, her never ending energy, her faith that all will be well at the end and her steadfast commitment to not allow her illness to interfere with her daily life all taught me so much. I am sometimes ashamed at the way I deal with challenges. We all get bent out of shape over minutia. Chaya will always remind me that life’s small challenges are NOTHING. They are meaningless. When they come our way, just look beyond them. Life is too important to allow silliness to throw us off balance. Here was a child fighting to live and knowing what was at stake, nevertheless behaved and lived as if life was a bowl of cherries. What a special person. Chaya was one of my one hundred and thirty nieces and nephews, but as it turned out, she was so much more! Yes, she was my cute little niece with that sweet angelic smile on her face, but she was also my teacher, my guide, my inspiration and much more.

During the past few days, I was wondering how my brother and sister-in-law are going to be able to move forward without her? How were they ever going to move on with so much pain? How is their faith in Hashem and so on? Until I heard of a conversation he had with one of my sisters a few days before Chaya passed away. My brother talked about how Chaya’s fate was in the hands of Hashem and out of our control and that the only thing that is in our control is how we deal with it. When my sister praised him for his incredible faith, he said to her “parents that go through this kind of tragedy have a lot of repentance to do”. What he meant was that when one goes through such a terrible ordeal with ups and downs, moments of high hopes and then terrible disappointments and this rollercoaster of emotions, it is often that one has thoughts of despair and one can question G-d and even get upset with Him. This is natural and expected, but he felt that for those weaknesses, one has to make right. One has to repent. Needless to say, when I heard this, I was dumbfounded. My brother needs to repent? My brother needs to come clean? Hashem has turned his life into hell on earth and he thinks he should repent for a negative thought or feeling he had towards Him throughout all of this? But this is the thought process of a special Chassid who takes his G-d very seriously and considers his every thought and feeling as very important. I am humbled by him. I hope that I am never tested, but I envy his faith. I envy his relationship with G-d and I envy his humility. I plan to be with him and his family for this Shabbos to offer him some encouragement and support. Something tells me that I will be the one coming away encouraged and uplifted. I have a feeling that I will be the one who walks away having learned a lesson or two about G-d, faith and life.

May Chaya’s memory be a blessing for all who knew her and may Hashem strengthen my brother and his family at this terrible time in their lives, for I believe that only He can heal their broken hearts and souls. May we merit the best blessing of all, the coming of Moshiach when we will once again see Chaya smiling at us, running around having fun and being the angel she was for the short eleven years she spent with us here on earth. Until then, my dearest Chaya, please rest in peace and know that you will be in our hearts and minds forever.

Rescue in Nepal

The two big news stories of the past week were the Earthquake in Nepal and the riots in Baltimore. I want to focus on the events and rescue efforts in Nepal while I leave Baltimore for others to sort out.

My colleague Rabbi Chezki Lifshitz and his wife Chani, who run the Chabad House in Kathmandu, Nepal, have been busy around the clock for the past seven days and nights caring for and helping stranded Israeli tourists and others get to safety. It was heartwarming to see this couple and their small children extend themselves the way they did to help everyone and anyone who was in danger and in need. Their Chabad Center turned into the “Israeli Embassy”. Every Israeli tourist knows that Chabad and the Lifshitz’s are there for them in times of tranquility and in times of danger and great need. It was amazing to see how distraught families in Israel, worried for their loved ones stranded in Nepal and with no communication from them, naturally turned to Rabbi Chezki and Chani even before they turned to Israeli authorities for help. Their Chabad House turned into a rescue and information center for the world. The situation in Kathmandu was so chaotic and unsafe that Rabbi Chezki and Chani had to send their children to Israel to stay with family, while they stayed in Kathmandu to help with the rescue effort.

In the coming paragraphs, I want to focus not so much on this incredible couple and their outstanding deeds, but rather on where this all comes from. Where does this couple get their inspiration from? Where does their commitment come from? How does a young couple with a bunch of children put themselves in real danger just to help others with this level of self-sacrifice?

To answer these questions, I want to share with you a special memory I have of this Shabbos twenty nine years ago in 1986. The weekly portion was the same as this Shabbos, the portion of Kedoshim. I had the privilege of being present at the Rebbe’s Farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) that afternoon, in which he elaborated on a certain commentary of Rashi (the classic and most famous commentator on the bible) on one of the verses of the weekly portion. The verse was Leviticus 19:16 which reads … “You shall not stand over the blood of your friend, I am Hashem”. Rashi explains the verse to mean that ‘if you see your friend in danger and you can save him (for example if your friend is drowning in the river and at the same time is being attacked by dangerous animals) then you must not stand still and let him die, but rather you must rescue him’. The Rebbe analyzed this Rashi and elaborated on it at great length and with tremendous passion he spoke about its practical application. I have vivid memories of this talk, because before Shabbos, I was assigned the task of giving a detailed review of that Shabbos Farbrengen a few days later in front of all the students in our Yeshivah. That Shabbos, I listened very attentively to the Rebbe speak so that I would remember what he said and succeed relating it properly and accurately a few days later.

The Rebbe gleaned practical life lessons from Rashi’s comment and with great ferver and passion implored from the thousands in attendance that they take Rashi’s words to heart. To him, the lesson was clear: if you see a Jew in certain danger (drowning), you must jump in to save him even if doing so might endanger you. He went on to apply this idea to spiritual danger as well. When there are millions of our Jewish brethren who are uneducated and live in spiritually dangerous environments like Nepal, Weston and practically most of the world outside of the spiritual hubs of Brooklyn and Jerusalem etc. must ‘jump in’ with all our essence and with every fiber of our existence to help and save another Jew, even if it means that we are potentially endangering our own spirituality.

The truth is that this message emerged from the Rebbe not only on that Shabbos twenty nine years ago, but it was his main theme for over 40 years. We, his Chassidim, heard this over and over again and thousands responded. They are the thousands of Shluchim (emissaries) planted around the globe, those individuals who ‘jumped into the river’ of assimilation and apathy, even at their own peril, to save millions of Jews who were in certain danger of ‘drowning’.

This week, Rabbi Chezki and Chani Lifshitz applied Rashi’s teaching and the Rebbe’s call quite literally in the physical sense as well. They stayed in Nepal, a very dangerous and unstable zone, to be there for those who are in danger, for those who need help and for those who otherwise may be lost forever. It was heartwarming to have seen the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, receive the 3 young Lifshitz children in his residence in Jerusalem and thank them and their parents on behalf of the people of Israel for everything they have done and continue to do. Please watch this touching video here.

It was the same story with my sister and brother-in-law, Rabbi Yossi and Chani Nemes, the Shluchim in New Orleans, who remained there during hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the city was in danger. They refused to leave their community behind. They remained to help those ‘drowning in the river’ of Katrina who may not have had the ability to leave ahead of time. And indeed, they were a great source of relief for those Jews during the days leading up to the hurricane, during the hurricane (they brought people to their home to be there together and weather the storm) and during the days following the hurricane when they went from house to house to bring food and other lifesaving supplies. Rabbi Yossi and Chani Nemes were subsequently invited to the White House by President Bush who offered them and Chabad his gratitude on behalf of the American people for everything they had done to rescue and save so many people from certain danger, even at their own cost.

This is the story of so many Shluchim around the world. The Rebbe was and continues to be the light and inspiration behind it all. I hope and pray for the people of Nepal that they see better days and that the thousands of Israelis who are still there should very soon be reunited with their families in Israel. Amen.

 

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