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From the Rabbi's Desk

Mission Impossible?

Bad news. Mission impossible. Abort immediately. 

This is the negative report that the spies brought back after scouting out the land of Canaan. Tales of giants roaming the streets, cities fortified with walls, unfriendly territory. In fact, they brought back massive fruit (8 spies were needed to carry a single bushel of grapes) to demonstrate how huge and mighty the inhabitants were.

After the Jewish nation collectively freaked out, they earned themselves 40 years of desert travel. If they only had a bit of faith, they would have realized that, with G-d on their side, the giants didn't even pose a threat.

In our 20/20 hindsight, we cannot fathom how the very same group who saw miracle after miracle lost faith so quickly. Ten plagues, splitting of the sea, manna falling from the heaven, the list goes on and on. A simple task like conquering a country should be within Hashem's miracle-performing comfort zone. Why the hysteria? 

The answer is that even with all the miracles, we are still human, and live in a world that operates on a natural plane. So the supernatural remains unnatural and counter-intuitive. No matter how many miracles you've experienced, when a lion is roaring right at you, it frightens the living daylights out of you. When hearing that they were up against 31 kings, and seeing the sheer size of the produce, they couldn't help but be paralyzed by fear.

It actually required a superhuman effort for Joshua and Caleb, two out of the twelve spies, to remain undaunted and optimistic. 

But that's the goal. And why we spent 40 years in the desert. To become more comfortable with the extraordinary. To realize that nature itself is Hashem's creation, and therefore cannot obstruct us from accomplishing our divine mission. True we live in nature, but we are also given the power to rise above it.

We can be a Caleb. We can be a Jewish superhero.

Only 10 days left until "Camp Aleph Superheroes" begins! 
Join the 30 campers already signed up at 
CampAleph.com or sponsor a "campership" and be a child's superhero. 

Too Good

If you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, grew up with not a care in the world, and had your every whim attended to, would that be awesome?

This is what life was like in the desert. The Jews had the heavenly Manna, Miriam's well water, the Clouds of Glory shielding them from the blazing sun and venomous scorpions. They had no job to be on time for, no bills to pay, no creditors knocking on the cloud, not even wifi. They lived a life that transcended the mundane. They could dedicate their days to Torah study and spiritual pursuit.

And yet, they weren't happy. They complained. Really?! That's like taking your child to Disneyland and while on the ride with an ice cream in hand, saying I'm bored.

So here's a deeper perspective. 

While Disney might be a nice place to visit, it's not suitable for everyday life. While a 5-star resort may cater to your every need, it doesn't actually leave room for you to accomplish, to advance, to grow.

What the Jews wanted was to experience struggle, to be challenged, and to come out stronger, to be victorious.

This was ultimately not a good approach, because we shouldn't actively put ourselves in a precarious position. However, when we do face an uphill battle, and it feels like we are swimming against the tide, let's remember; Hashem placed us in this world to achieve, to accomplish, and ultimately to make ourselves and the world better than before.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Individually Unique

Amazing Shavuos party for the 10 commandments. Over 60 adults and children enjoying the best cheesecake and ice cream spread since Sinai!

Individually unique.

One of the topics of this week's Torah portion (fun fact: the longest one in the Torah) is the dedication of theMishkan - the temporary temple that accompanied the Jews in the desert. 

The leader of each tribe brought an offering. A very precise offering. As an example: "one silver bowl weighing one hundred and thirty shekels". What's interesting is that each and every leader's offering was exactly the same. The items, the amounts, the weights, everything. 

If this is the case, then why does the Torah bother to repeat this paragraph of information a staggering twelve times (resulting in it being the longest portion)? It seems highly repetitive and unnecessary. Wouldn't it make much more sense to write it once and preface "each one of the leaders brought..."?

This is the mistake of generalizing and grouping. In today's day and age, we tend to put everyone into a category, filing them away into a box.

The Midrash devotes dozens of pages to explaining how this offering in all its glorious detail was perfectly suited to that particular tribe's character and personality. And it was similarly exactly appropriate for the next, but for a totally different reason. Each element was chock full of significance, and yet an altogether different experience than the next one. From the firstborn tribe of Reuven to the Torah scholars of Yisachar to the merchant of the Zevulun tribe.

We don't need to do something different to be unique. We simply are unique. And it expresses itself in everything we do, no matter how ordinary it seems. None of us are redundant and our experience matters to Hashem deserving its own mention in the Torah.

So do a Mitzvah, and make it your own.

Yankel or Larry

The nation has been taken by storm.

In what seems like a random discovery, an audio clip of an enigmatic nature emerged this week. The very same recording sounds like "yanny" to some, while others distinctly hear "laurel". It's reminiscent of the blue and back dress of a few years ago that many perceived to be white and gold.

Scientists and language experts have explained that the sound waves of these two words are very similar. When the sound was uploaded to the internet and compressed with MP3 technology, certain elements of the sound were removed, leaving our brains to fill in the blanks. So while your ears and brain may process it as "yanny", your friend sitting next to you, might hear nothing but "laurel".

Rewind 3,330 years.

Some 3 million Jews are gathered at the base of Mt Sinai. After a 7-week journey through the desert, anticipation for the receiving of the Torah is at its apex. The mountain, covered in freshly grown flowers, is ablaze. Amidst lighting and thunder, the world stood still, nary a bird chirping. The newly minted nation able to see straight through the heavens. 

And when that powerful voice emanated for the 10 Commandments, we find something fascinating. Commandment number four.

The 10 commandments appear twice in the Torah. In the Exodus scene #4 reads "Remember the Shabbos" while in Deuteronomy, the same commandment states "Keep the Shabbos". Is this the original Laurel vs Yanny (or perhaps Leibel vsYankel)?

While it has been determined that the original uncompressed audio clip was definitely Laurel (a sound bite on Vocabulary.com), with the Shabbos commandment, it is much cooler. 

In the traditional L'cha Dodi sung on Friday night, it enlightens us that "Shamor v'Zachor B'dibur Echad" - that Hashem spoke "Remember" and "Keep" in one word. Hashem, not constrained by human limitations, was indeed able to articulate two messages simultaneously. In fact, these two form the construct of all the commandments in the Torah. Remember is the proactive part of the relationship - just like remembering an anniversary gift. Keep is all about protecting the relationship from negative influences. Saying them together shows us that the do's and don'ts are both part and parcel of the same relationship.

Another takeaway is that there are times when our perception just doesn't cut it. And though I fall squarely on the Yanny side, I still know with absolute certainty, that it is actually Laurel. And as finite humans revisiting the Sinai experience this Sunday, we too may not always pick up the correct divine pitch. So when we're not feeling it, take it to the heavenly linguistics authority. Look inside the Torah, and though we may still hear something else, we can know with confidence what the truth is.

... This Sunday, whether you are on Team Yanny or Team Laurel, chocolate or vanilla ice cream, come hear the 10 commandments Live. You might just hear something you never heard before. 

Volcanic Eruptions

Volcanic thoughts.

So Hawaii's Kīlauea volcano, which has been erupting continuously since 1983, is once again disrupting life on the Island. The bursts of lava and the unstoppable flow of molten from the fissures have destroyed some 40 homes.

We can learn something positive from everything that we see or hear. So here are some of my thoughts.

Sometimes, we can think that what you see is what you get. And if it looks like a mound of dirt, then it is most likely a simple mound of dirt. The volcanic eruptions remind us just how much there is beneath the surface. Incredible potent energy waiting to be unleashed; precious gems and minerals ready to mine; treasures and historic pasts waiting to be excavated.

Similarly, at times we may feel like a rock, unable to produce, just being trampled upon, cold and lifeless. Yet, if we dig beneath the surface, if we take a moment to explore, we discover, hidden treasures and unstoppable power within us. An energy we never knew we had.

Perhaps our energy may burst forth like a lava fountain, or maybe it will be a slow and steady drive cascading forward towards an as of yet unknown destination. One thing is certain, there needs to be an opening in order for the hidden powers to make a difference. How do we create these fissures or rupture through the thick crust our life has developed? There needs to be a disruption of the status quo.

So let's start bubbling, start those powerful reactions going, and let's not let a layer of rock and dirt get between us and making the world a better place.

Does it Matter?

Does it matter?

It's a question that I receive often. Why the specific laws and customs? It's all so detailed! Can't we just keep it to the main characters, to the highlights? 613 commandments, plus a whole host of customs and traditions?

As evidenced by many villages around the world, homes can be simple cement structures that provide shelter. Meals can be made of basic ingredients. But given the opportunity, one wouldn't suffice with the stripped down minimum for something that mattered to them.

When creating something, the beauty is in the details. A painting masterpiece is defined by the many hues and contrasting colors. In culinary arts, it is the delectable array of flavors that blend harmoniously on one's palate to create a tantalizing recipe. In engineering a powerful computer, those microchip processors are not insignificant.

One may not be able to point to one shade of color on the painting and say this shadow is beautiful, and yet that same shadow helps the portrait come to life. That single rivet on the Golden Gate Bridge may not be the largest piece of metal, and yet it is equally as important to the structure. (A little metal fatigue on the Southwest engine...)

Similarly in a relationship, while the honeymoon and dream vacations might be awesome, so are the little things. In fact, washing the dishes, something that isn't as exciting or glamorous, might well prove the commitment a whole lot more.

So next time you have an opportunity to do a Mitzvah, if it's a big one, amazing. And if it's a "detail", go for it with that same dedication. Who knows just how meaningful that one act might be on a Cosmic level.

Shabbat Shalom!

Bow & Arrow

A bow and arrow. The first weapon capable of non-hand-to-hand combat.

This Thursday is a lesser-known Jewish holiday; Lag B'omer. The day on which the great sage, kabbalist, and author of the Zohar (a chief kabbalistic text), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi for short) passed away.

It is said that due to his piety, a rainbow never appeared during his lifetime. Gorgeous as they may be, Instagram worthy vibrant colors that last but a magical few moments, the rainbow has some less than idyllic symbolism. After the Great Flood, Hashem promised Noah that he would never again destroy everything. The rainbow would be the symbol, a reminder of this promise.

Thanks to Rashbi's influence on his generation, there was never any spiritual displeasure, and thus, never a need for a rainbow. So on the day that we celebrate his lifetime and achievements, the kids play with a bow (get it?) and arrow.

Kabbalah is the inner dimension of the Torah, the secret or less than obvious aspects, the deeper levels. Naturally, there must be some deep significance to the bow and arrow. 

As we navigate life there are two kinds of challenges we face. Obvious ones, such as my car running out of gas, have very direct solutions; go to your nearest gas station. In fact, life is a continuous series of these hand-to-hand sword combat style situations. The pantry is depleted, laundry needs to be washed, daughter needs to go to a ballet lesson, cell phone bill needs to be paid. And like little ninjas we navigate the maze of obstacles, knocking out as many opponents as we can.

However, there is another genre of challenges; the hidden ones. These lie in ambush, hiding behind a wall, pelting you with their munitions.  These challengers, behind their screen of uncertainty, leave you with no direct solutions. As they say, it's complicated. Hence the bow and arrow, a form of attack that can arch its way and take out the lurking issue.

With a bow and arrow, one first needs to pull back towards oneself, propelling the arrow to otherwise unreachable targets. When faced with a daunting dilemma, with an unclear way forward, the bow and arrow teaches us, pull back - retreat into your heart, soul, and essence, gathering that powerful divine energy from within, and empowering us to tackle any adversary.

Come shoot a bow and arrow at Thursday's Family BBQ at Leghorn Park, along with field games by Kinder Kickz!

Also, next Friday evening is a community Shabbat dinner at the new Chabad center. Hope you can join us!

Stick & Stones

So what's the scoop?

In today's world of tabloid magazines and sensational headlines, it's a race to the press room. With a gazillion different social media platforms, we forget about the person on the other end of"social". When clicking that "share" button, it's not always about a positive contribution to our friends.

Usually, we don't even notice. Immersed in a culture of gossip, it has simply become a way of life. We spend more time focusing on others' shortcomings than on their (and our own) progress.

Up through the times of the Holy Temple, there was a gentle reminder from Above that words matter. One who engaged in gossip would be afflicted with a supernatural skin condition. To clarify, this was not an illness due to physical health issues or bacteria. So to heal it, the individual would first be diagnosed by a Kohen, and then follow a process that included isolation outside of the Jewish camp. This would give them the opportunity to reflect on and heal their spiritual self.

While we no longer have this condition (known as Tzara'at), the message remains. Unlike the classic "Sticks and stones may break my bones", the Talmud teaches us: Gossip hurts three; the one who talks; the one who listens, and the one about whom it is spoken. In a sense, the damage from a callous insult can last longer than mere action.

On the flip side, let's use this to inspire us to compliment, to speak sensitively, to congratulate accomplishments and to uplift one another.

Let It Shine

Hmm, I didn't have too much time to write, as we just got back from representing Camp Aleph at a camp fair (early bird end on the 18th - check out the superhero camp calendar below!). But there's definitely lots going on; The Kabbalah and Coffeebeginning on Sunday, the Holocaust Survivor Cookbookauthor coming on Tuesday and Cinco de Mayo Shabbatdinner on May 4th.

However, let's focus on something special that is happening every day: The counting of the Omer. For the 49 days from the exodus up until the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Jews counted in anticipation. As we relive that experience in our own lives and leave our own slavery and challenges behind, we too count the days (or nights rather). 

The Hebrew word for counting is Sefirah or the verb lispor. A very similar word is Sapir - a gem (sapphire). We don't just randomly count days, we've got google calendar and Siri reminders for that. What we do is illuminate them, we make them shine. 

This is the best preparation for receiving the Torah. Taking the dull and mundane and infusing it with vitality and radiance.

Miracles How To

Moses? Check. 
Pharaoh? Check.
Aaron the high priest? Miriam the prophetess? Check, check.
Nachson ben Aminadav? Say who?

Who is this (relatively) unknown figure?

The seventh day of Passover is when the splitting of the sea occurred. Imagine the chaos as hundreds of thousands of just-released slaves turn around to see Egyptian chariots chasing them down. With the red sea in front of them and the seemingly certain return to slavery behind them, no one quite knew what to do,  and there were many varied responses (
see my previous blog post) They needed a miracle. But how do you evoke a miracle? There's no instruction manual for miracle stimulation.

Well, from amongst the throngs, emerged one soon-to-be hero; Nachshon. The dire circumstance didn't phase him, the hysteria didn't shake him. He was laser-focused on the task at hand. Hashem had instructed them to travel, and come fire (Egyptian arrows) or come water (the Red Sea), nothing would derail him.

And so he stepped into the water and continued walking. Knees followed ankles, chest, and shoulders quickly proceeded. When it got to his nostrils, that is when the iconic miracle transpired. The waters split, allowing the fledgling Jewish nation to pass through on dry land.

The message to us is that miracles - the ability to overcome daunting obstacles - are inspired by action. Almost as if Hashem is saying, "you do your part, and I will do mine".

The Talmud relates a story of an impoverished sage who wanted to bring something special to the Holy Temple but could not afford to. One day, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa spotted the most beautiful boulder and decided that it would make the perfect gift. As it was extremely heavy, he tried to flag down a group of passersby to help him transport it. After multiple failed attempts, a group of angels disguised as people appeared. They agreed with one stipulation; he must help them by placing his little finger on the rock. In an instant, they were in Jerusalem. 

Why the need for his finger? Because for miracles to happen, we need to tickle them awake. "You do your part, and I will do mine".

Zero Chance?

Passover. A wonderful time for family and community. We gather around the festive Seder table to relive the exodus out of Egypt.

Whether the Haggadah (story of the exodus) takes you 30 minutes or 2 hours, it sounds like a simple story, The Jews were slaves, and then got out free. As a result, we celebrate with Matzah, wine, bitter herbs and the most delicious brisket.

But think about this for a second: The slavery lasted 210 years, not just days or months. In other words, these Jews had never known a day of freedom in their lives. Their only reality was slavery. Coupled with the fact that Egypt's track record for escaped slaves was a big round zero.

This is exactly the message of Passover. Sometimes we can find ourselves in a place where there does not seem to be an exit from a tough situation. Or sometimes there might be a formidable obstacle preventing us from achieving our goals. And Passover shows us that miracles are possible. We can and should believe in a brighter tomorrow. Yesterday's reality of slavery bears no weight against tomorrow's opportunity for freedom, growth, and the ability to pursue our dreams.

This Passover, open yourself up to a miraculous future!

Wishing you and your family a happy and liberating Passover.

My Seder in Russia

What a wonderful way to dedicate the New Center! Thank you to all who came out and to all those who participated in making this a reality! Amazing Jewish music by the band, a delicious spread of Kosher sushi, desserts, strudel, salads and more. We affixed the Mezuzah and started the printing of Petaluma's first special edition Tanya! 

Check out the photo gallery below!

Sunday we are having a 
Model Matzah Bakery, a hands-on Passover experience, taking wheat stalks, grinding them into flour, and making handmade Matzah. Educational, fun, and an amazing way to get into the Seder spirit.

Seeing this, a friend sent me some photos of a Matzah Bakery from 17 years ago. As young Yeshiva students, we traveled to Ryazan a Russian city some 4 hours away from Moscow. For the small Jewish community that lived there, it was a magical week that they looked forward to for months.

Many of the adults had grown up under the Soviet communist regim, when celebrating Passover in a communal setting was near impossible. As a result, the handful of children barely knew about Matzah, the Seder, or the slavery of our ancestors in Egypt. Yet, the inextinguishable Jewish flame burned brightly, curiosity apparent on these pure faces.

While the language made purchasing produce from the local bazaar more difficult and we needed a translator to do the traditional bargaining, when it came to the Jewish community, my poor Russian (I've improved since then!) hardly got in the way. Instead, as we baked Matzah with the children, hosted a kumzitz with a group of Jewish students in our Gastinitza (motel), and sat with over 140 people at our seder celebrating freedom in a place that had much too recently only known oppression, we understood each other perfectly. As midnight approached and we sang Tumbalalaika, we communicated through the language of the soul. Together we prayed for the same future as Jews the world over at their family or community Seder table wished for, "Na sledushom gadu v'Yerusaleme" - Next Year in Jerusalem!

What I took from that special unforgettable trip, is that as wonderful as our traditions are, they are that much sweeter when shared with others. So whether you invite a coworker to join your family's Seder, or bring along a friend to Friday's 
Community Seder at the new Chabad Center, let's think of how we can help someone else on their journey out of a personal Egypt to true inner freedom.

The New Month

This Shabbat is called "Hachodesh" - the month. It's the time when we were given the Mitzvah of the Jewish calendar. It is a lunar calendar. When the moon fades to complete darkness, and the new moon first emerges, it becomes a new month. 

That being said, it was not celebrated (in temple times) as the new month until two witnesses would come to the court confirming that they had seen the new moon. Not just Rosh Chodesh (the 1st of the month), but all the Jewish holidays would be determined based on this. e.g. Passover is on the 15th of the month, so it could shift from a Tuesday to a Wednesday depending completely on whether the moon had been spotted.

This was Hashem giving the power to the people. The very holidays that he instructed us to celebrate, we make them happen. Even now, that a calendar is in place, it was authored and organized and calculated by us, people. 

This Sunday, right in theme, we have another instance of something powerful created by the people. A beautiful community center to celebrate, share, laugh and learn. It is thanks to the wonderful community that we are blessed to be a part of that this has materialized. 

We can't wait to celebrate with all of you this Sunday, 11:00am. 205 Keller Street #101

Turbo Boost

Cell phone chargers, gas stations, the supermarket, sleep. Refueling is something that is part of the fabric of life. There is so much we want to accomplish, destinations to travel to, projects to complete, but without proper nutrition (and a charged cellphone), we become incapacitated.

Shabbat. It's the day of rest. When we take a break from the usual chaos of the mundane workweek, and we take the time to get back to ourselves, to reflect, and to be refreshed for when the cycle of life begins again.

But it's not just a lack of a crazy schedule. It's not just about a break from the homework and conference calls. It's not a pause button. Shabbat uplifts. Shabbat recharges our battery. It infuses us with the energy required for us to navigate the week.

In the Kaballah it states דמיניה מתברכין כולהו יומין - all the days of the week are blessed from Shabbat. It's like a micro Rosh Hashanah empowering us to face the challenges ahead.

Once a month we have a super-powered Shabbat. It's called Shabbat Mevorchim - the Shabbat that blesses - and it influences the entire month. It's the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh (the start of the month in the Jewish lunar calendar) and it gives us a turbo-boost. We come out of this Shabbat with engines blazing, spiritual grocery cart full, rearing to go and tackle everything that awaits us. We've got our gear and are ready for the adventure of life.

So take a look at 
your calendar and see what's coming up in your life. Of course, there's Passover (and a beautiful Community Seder), there's the Grand Opening one week from Sunday (it's going to be amazing!), and there's everything from JSprouts Tinkergarten, to a Model Matzah Bakery(make your own Matzah!). And then there's your personal agenda. A doctor's visit with an optimistic prognosis, a test to pass with flying colors, a personal best at the gym, a world record to break. How do we gather the strength to climb that mountain? This Shabbat, fill up your metaphorical canteen and grab a protein bar. Light Shabbat candles (5:54pm), sing the Kiddush, recite your favorite Jewish prayer. The energy buffet is open and we're all invited.

Grand Opening

In Jewish tradition, nothing is by chance.

Everything is by divine providence. Take the Purim story as an example. There was an incredible amount of heavenly orchestration for everything to work out the way it did. Esther being queen. Mordechai overhearing the plot to murder the king. The king's sleepless night. And that's the Purim message; to recognize the miraculous within the ordinary.

In the Torah we have been reading about the building of the original Shul (synagogue) - it was the Tabernacle, the traveling temple. This became the prototype for the future Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Shuls across the globe still bear many resemblances to the original. 

In the Holy of Holies was an ark with the tablets. In Synagogues, there's an ark with a Torah scroll. The Eternal Lamp represents the Menorah, that was never fully extinguished. The curtain on the ark (called Parochet) similar to the curtain that partitioned the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Sanctuary.

And then there is the matter of how it happened. They did a fundraising campaign. And the Jewish community showed up. They brought gold, silver, and copper. Expensive wools, and beams of Acacia wood. Precious gems and mirrors for the wash basin. They came with such speed and alacrity, so much enthusiasm for this project, that Moshe had to call off the campaign.

This week, our community, followed in this tradition. When we announced the #NextLevel campaign for the new center, an amazing outpouring of generosity ensued. I'd like to say that it was unprecedented, but it was. Perhaps it is wired in our DNA, inspired by our ancestors in the desert. And while we still have a wish list of items for the new center (coming soon), the lease is signed, the foundation is set for a bright Jewish future.

One thing is for sure, when the Jewish community bands together, we can accomplish amazing things together. So thank you to all who of you who participated and made it happen!

Now, please join us, as we march together into the #NextLevel with a Grand Opening on Sunday, March 18th.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim!

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