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The Rabbi's Blog

A Message from Rabbi Spalter

"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 Centers, Shopping malls 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 Sunday 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 Tuesday, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of the 19th of Kislev. On this day in 1798 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; We are just coming from a very contentious election period. Democrats and Republicans fought it out and then the people had their voice. With every election cycle and its non-stop barrage of negative ads, protests, acrimonious mudslinging from one side against the other, I convince myself that it cannot get any worse. The division in the country is at its worst it’s ever been, I say to myself. But then comes the next cycle and I realize that two years prior was nothing compared to the current round. People wonder why this is and how we got here. In my opinion, it is because we have become too superficial. We stereotype. We see others by their tags. Democrat vs. republican, white vs. black or man vs. women. When we look at a fellow citizen what do we see first? That person's color?  Their external qualities? Their voter registration card? 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 so superficial and only skin deep? I hope last night, at Thanksgiving dinner we all had a chance to get back to basics and see things for what they really are; your family, your friends, your fellow Americans. All the rest is secondary or even less than that.  

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 each other, 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 Shema 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.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Pittsburgh and Us

Rabbi, what’s going to be? What should we do? Rabbi, how can you explain this? What do I tell my children? These and many more questions were on the minds of millions of Jews here in the United States and all over the world. The tragedy in Pittsburgh last Saturday as 11 Jews were murdered in cold blood while praying, sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world. There is so much to ponder. Once again history repeats itself, as another Jew hater kills Jews. What makes this so painful is that it happened here in America, the Goldene Medina or in English “the country of gold”, a place where nothing can go wrong. I don’t mean that as a joke, by the way. We are so accustomed to the comforts and protections this truly blessed country has provided us Jews that it is hard to cope with such a turn of events. There are no easy answers, in fact I don’t think there are any answers at all. Who can explain this? Who can say why G-d would allow such a tragedy to happen to his beloved people? I cannot and trust me, no one else can either.

But silence is not the call of the hour either. You see, if the question is why Hashem allows there atrocities to happen? Then all we can do is be silent and accept the ultimate judgment of G-d. He does not owe us any explanations and to be quite frank, I do not want any either. What good would it do if G-d would explain to me the reason for this kind of pain and suffering? How will that make me a better person? How will that make me more compassionate? It won’t. I may be able to sleep better knowing the reason, but who wants to sleep better when 11 families are grieving and in such pain. So may I suggest that instead of asking why? We should start asking what? What should we do about it? What should be our reaction? What is a proper Jewish response to this kind of tragedy?

In order to respond properly we must first know what we are responding to. We are responding to a man who hates Jews and everything Jews stand for; His target was Jewish values, the Jewish way of life, Judaism, Israel and all of us who represent all that. To such evil there can be only one answer; Strengthen Jewish Values, strengthen the Jewish way of life, strengthen Judaism and strengthen Israel. This killer tried to tear Jews away from Prayer. Our response should be to fill every house of prayer. This Shabbos our Synagogues should look like they do on Yom Kippur; filled to capacity. There should not be an empty seat. These Anti Semites hate us because of what we represent. If you want to do something in response to the murder of 11 pure souls who died because they were Jewish, then do something Jewish. Light Shabbos candles tonight before sundown. Go to Shul and say and sing those very prayers that these 11 Jewish victims would love to say but sadly can no longer. Act more Jewishly this Shabbos. Bring your family along and connect with other Jews. This will bring you the comfort you seek in these difficult times.  Groaning and moaning about Anti-Semitism with no action is pointless. We are a people who have responded to so many tragedies throughout our long and difficult history and we have always emerged stronger and better. This is because we did not only moan and groan, we acted, we built a stronger Jewish identity, a stronger Jewish community, we became even more connected to G-d. This time is no different. We will act, we will grow, we will be strong and we will live. And regarding our children and what to tell them? Tell them the truth, but more importantly SHOW them the truth; show them the beauty of Judaism and what a privilege it is to be and live as a Jew. The rest they will figure out on their own. I hope to see you this Shabbos.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Shabbat Shalom

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