,

What Does it Mean to be a Jew? Yehuda, Yosef and God’s Hidden Plan

“Vayigash eilav Yehudah, Then Yehudah approached him…” (Breishit 44:18)

One of the names that the Jewish people are known by is “Yehudim”. Our sages teach us that the word “Yehudim” comes from the word hoda’a, which means simultaneously an “admission, acknowledgment, declaration”. If we are known as the people of hoda’a, what is it that the Jewish people go through time acknowledging or declaring?

That everything both small and large, both good and difficult, comes from God.

The Sfas Emes continues with this message and teaches that this is helpful knowledge, especially during every challenging and dark time.

Claiming, that even in the dark times, when it seems that God is hidden from us, there is Godly energy there too.

Yehuda and his brothers were begging for their lives in front of the most powerful person in the world — who secretly was their brother Yosef, who they had sold into slavery. Yehuda recounts all the trials and tribulations that got them to this situation.

What is he doing? Why is the Torah spending valuable space recounting things that we already know?

Yehuda is acknowledging that amidst this terrible set of circumstances — and he knows that the brothers were being punished for what they did to Yosef decades earlier — God’s plan is being revealed and God is still with them.

At that moment when Yehuda declares that this situation too, as painful as it is to endure, is from God, Yosef cannot contain himself anymore and has to reveal his true identity to his brothers.

This bittersweet reunion, and what Yosef tells his brothers, makes them, and all their generations of offspring realize, that God did not abandon them. Rather God was with Yosef the whole time after he had been sold, and that this drought and famine were part of God’s larger plan.

Our subsequent life in Egypt, enslavement, and redemption, form a significant part of the core-identity system of the Jewish people, and subsequently for all downtrodden peoples throughout time.

Yosef had to go to Egypt, be falsely accused, rot in jail, translate dreams, become a ruler, and trick his brothers into bringing Binyamin down to Egypt — it was all part of God’s plan from t

he start.

So too, in our lives, we experience sets of circumstances and challenges that can truly test our strength, faith, and hope.

Whatever you are going through right now, God is waiting to reveal the reasons, but we have to do our job of being Yehudim, acknowledging and declaring that God is truly engaged in every aspect of our lives and the world, for us to begin to see the reasons.

Good Shabbos and Shabbat Shalom

, , ,

5 Ways to Keep the Spiritual Momentum of the High Holidays

The High Holidays and Sukkot have ended. This marathon of Jewish holy days earned many of us an increased spiritual awareness, sensitivity, and commitment. But how can we maintain that growth throughout the year? Here are five suggestions for maintaining the momentum of the High Holidays:

1 – Honoring Shabbat

Shabbat is a weekly opportunity to unplug and stay in good spiritual health. Meals with family and friends, communal worship, connecting with community, and creating time to rejuvenate are critical elements to Shabbat, and to keeping the High Holiday growth going during the year ahead. What you do to honor Shabbat, will reward you spiritually and materially.

2 – Creating time for daily Torah study

A person who is not engaged in daily Torah study is depriving themselves of the nutrients they need to stay in good spiritual health, nurture their soul and develop a stronger connection with God. I suggest a Chevruta – learning with a partner. While attending classes is important, it’s often passive learning. The real impact of Torah learning on your life comes from having a study partner. Even 5 minutes a day.

3 – Acquire for yourself a Shul Friend

Our sages teach us in Pirkei Avot, “Acquire for yourself a friend”. Be in regular contact with people you spent the holidays with. This is a natural group of people to help you maintain your spiritual strength this year.

4 – Volunteer for Tomchei and other chesed projects

My last Dvar Torah of the holiday season was about the importance of doing someone a favor. You cannot underestimate the power of helping others — both on how it will positively influence your life and those you are helping.

5 – Paying your pledges

Many people make pledges of tzedakah / charity during the Holidays. Whether in memory of someone during Yizkor, or a misheberach after an honor, an auction, it is critical to pay your pledge for the impact in the world to take place.

May you continue to grow and learn, and be blessed with an outpouring of divine favor!

, ,

Bar Mitzvah in Baku

I recently traveled to Azerbaijan to speak at the 6th International Conference on Multiculturalism at Baku Slavic University. Azerbaijan is a developing country in the Caucuses on the Caspian Sea, rich in oil and agricultural resources, and committed to building a secular Muslim society tolerant of minorities. They enjoy good diplomatic and trade relations with Israel and America. Yes, Israel and America.

While admittedly I was nervous about what I would find once I reached Baku, my experience working with the Azerbaijan Consulate in Los Angeles had been so pleasant that I could not imagine anything other than a warm welcome. In fact, I spent the next three days as a reluctant VIP, in a whirlwind of activity, with touring, interviews, meetings, celebrations, teaching, and a boat ride on the Caspian Sea. This is part one of a series on my visit to Azerbaijan.

______________

David looks as nervous as any other 13 year old boy wrapped in a tallit and tefillin, standing on the bima in front of the torah on a Thursday morning. The rabbi coaxes him, and he recites the blessing before, and then the blessing after the torah reading. The candies rain down from the women’s gallery above as we break out in singing “siman tov, u mazal tov”. David is smiling, his father is beaming, and the joy in the synagogue is tremendous.

However, David is not in my synagogue in Los Angeles, but in the Mountain Jews Synagogue in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a Muslim country in the Caucasus.

It was my second morning joining the Mountain Jews for services. And like at other synagogues on a Thursday morning, identifying those those who were there for the Bar Mitzvah was easy: they came bearing gifts and food, and had yarmulkas perched awkwardly on their heads. Everyone was dressed-up for for the occasion. Unlike the previous day, the women’s gallery above was now full with women of all ages, their heads wrapped with colorful scarves. During David’s aliyah, when he was called up to bless the Torah, the women held lit candles.

This synagogue was built by the government in 2011 to replace their aging old synagogue, through the goodwill of the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. The floors are covered in colorful rugs, and there are even small rugs on many of the seats. (I would be given a gift of some of these small rugs to take home later by the head of the community.) I was honored by the rabbi to stand with him on the tall bima in middle of the room during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

The Jewish community of Azerbaijan lived in relative peace for centuries — some say thousands of years — before the Soviet Union began to destroy synagogues and repress Jewish life. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that Jewish life in Azerbaijan had a chance to breath again. Many Jews left for Israel, Moscow or America. But thousands stayed and are building Jewish life in Azerbaijan.

Like the rest of the country emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union, Jewish life in Baku is also in development. There are hundreds of children attending two Jewish day schools in Baku. The largest is Or Avner which is operated by the local Chabad emissary Rabbi Shneor Segal, who is nearing completion on a new kindergarten building on the campus of Or Avner (also donated by the government). There are Jewish clubs and other organizations. In addition to the Mountain Jews synagogue there is an Ashkenazi and a Georgian Synagogue in Baku.

After the Bar Mitzvah and morning services, I joined the community and guests in the synagogue basement for a celebratory meal including vodka, tea and pomegranate juice to accompany the breads, salads, olives, omelettes and pastries. I sat with synagogue’s head rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Yaakov, who I had previously met when he visit LA with a delegation of Azerbaijani Jews. We conversed in Hebrew about the weekly Shabbat meals that he supervises which the synagogue serves, and other community and charity work that he is doing. Then Milikh Yevdayev, the leader of the Mountain Jews community in Azerbaijan, offered blessings and toasts in Azeri and Juhuri, the local Jewish language.

I made a few l’chaims, ate some pastries, and then had to run — a car was waiting to take me Kultura Plus, a Azerbaijan TV station, for an interview. However, you cannot just run out empty handed in Baku, that’s not the way it works. Two men quickly assembled a plate full of local sweets and a gift bag for me to take, and I wished everyone Mazal Tov!

Photos to accompany by article about David's Bar Mitzvah in Baku.

Posted by Rabbi Yonah on Thursday, May 21, 2015

,

Tragic Loss in Brooklyn Sounds Alarm Across the Jewish World

(Published in Jewish Journal March 27)
During a time when we are preparing our homes and communities to celebrate the joyous festivities of Passover, a painful tragedy has muted our joy.

This past Friday night, a malfunctioning electric hot plate set off a fire that killed seven children in Brooklyn. The world lost seven beautiful souls, children of Gabriel and Gayle Sassoon: brothers David, 12; Yehoshua, 10; Moshe, 8; Yaakov, 5; and sisters Eliane, 16; Rivka, 11; and Sarah, 6. The mother Gayle and fifteen year-old Siporah managed to escape by leaping out of the second-floor windows and are in critical condition, in need of our prayers.

God didn’t sacrifice these children to convince us that keeping Shabbat is dangerous or an anathema to modern life. God didn’t take these precious lives from the world because of our sins. God took these seven souls back, away from this terrestrial existence, for reasons beyond our comprehension. It leaves a gaping hole in the lives of their family members and such a shocking loss reverberates throughout the Jewish World.

However, as a parent, and as an observant Jew who uses an electric hot plate and a Yom-Tov candle, the tragedy is a loud alarm to me, and hopefully to everyone, about the need for increased vigilance and safety in our community.

May God comfort the families of those precious children who perished and heal the injured.