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Weekly Message

Vulnerability Rocks!

While chatting with my friend Lance, a native Salish Kootenai tribesman, he shared with me the words that his grandma would always ask him. She’d say, “ Stem a Spus ”, which translates in English to “What’s in your heart”. It’s a question that cuts through all the superficial wreckage that clouds our essence and allows us to dig deep and share what’s on our mind and, perhaps more importantly, what’s churning in our hearts. It’s more than the unintentional “How are you?”, “How’s it going?” or “What’s cooking?”; it’s soul-talk, vulnerability talk, and that is something we could all use a dose of, at least every once in a while.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, the last of Leviticus, we read about the consequences that will engulf Jewry, when they choose to neglect G-d’s wishes, following an idolatrous and immoral path, choosing frivolity over holiness. Many Jews fear the word “sin” as they think of it through the lens of human judgmentalism. We may be frightened by the concept of reward and punishment, as it forces us to think of the Afterlife and no one enjoys that while thinking of their next vacation to Turks and Caicos. We prefer to think of G-d as a nice fellow that kicks-in to help us, if we scream loud enough, but not someone who is there 24/7. Personally, I Chaim Shaul Ben Chana Leah, prefer a G-d, who does care about my behavior, who cherishes my free choice, yet, is hoping that I choose His way. I want a daddy in heaven who is concerned enough about my wellbeing that He will knock me into shape, if He deems it necessary (and trust me, He does, often).

If “Sin” exists, if there is accountability, then I become vulnerable and who likes that? Yet, both Torah and psychology have guided us to understand that the fear of vulnerability is simply a way for us to remain numb, for us to come across as tough, creating a big façade, while, sadly, struggling deeply inside. “Sin” means we can make mistakes or even deliberately make bad choices. Does that mean that I’m inherently bad? No! It just means that I’m human and my G-d, who knows what’s in my heart, understands the human challenges and therefore uses His various tools to get us back on track. Sometimes the tool is consequences, sometimes it’s Teshuva/Repentance/Return and sometimes it’s letting things go, but I’d sure rather have a G-d who cares to punish me when I deserve it, than one who always lets me off the hook, in which case, like a wayward child, I will never learn my lesson.

You’re human, you sin; now, get over yourself and change!

May G-d guard our brethren in Israel and the world over from harm and send us Moshiach speedily. May He protect the armed forces of Israel and the United States wherever they may be. Shabbat Shalom! Chazak!!! L'Chaim!!!

Muhammad Ali was right!

They came from Great Falls and Livingston, Billings and The Flathead, Bozeman and Missoula, as Montanan Jews gathered for Montana’s Jewish Retreat in Ennis. The learning, Davening, meals, socializing, holy Shabbat atmosphere, guest speakers, were all part of what made this Shabbaton exceptional, but mostly it was the people attending who, with warmth and joy, celebrated our familial unity. We took a break for a couple of days and then rejoined last night for our annual Lag B’Omer BBQ, as we celebrated the lives of Rabbi Akivah and his beloved student Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, both of whom lived full, extremely productive, lives.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behar, we read about the treatment of slaves. We are commanded “You shall not work him with rigor”, as Rashi explains “Unnecessary jobs, for the purpose of tormenting him. E.g., do not say to him: “Warm up this drink for me,” when you do not need it; or “Hoe under this vine until I come back” and you may never come back there”. It seems so obvious, why would any sane Torah-following individual want to torment their servant just for the heck of it? Yet, I think G-d is subtly teaching us a life lesson: no one should be fruitless. Every move we make, every word we utter and every thought we think, should be goal oriented and produce results that better ourselves and our world.

“The Greatest” Muhammad Ali once said “Don't count the days. Make the days count.” Even when anguished with Parkinson’s, he still made the best of every moment life offered him. At the Retreat, we were able to utilize so many hours of Shabbos productively. We weren’t spending time on social media or watching T.V., we weren’t reading our daily paper or catching up on work; we were simply allowing ourselves to see life through the Shabbos lens, seeing ourselves as agents of meaning, inspiration, holiness and output. We all need a break on occasion to rejuvenate but we mustn’t ever take our eye off the ball, the ball of making a difference.

Give productivity a shot; you’ll feel like a million bucks!

May G-d guard our brethren in Israel and the world over from harm and send us Moshiach speedily. May He protect the armed forces of Israel and the United States wherever they may be. Shabbat Shalom! Chazak!!! L'Chaim!!!

Rabbi vs. Turkey!

Earlier this week, I was chatting with a local friend, and I told him that I missed him at Tuesday’s Jewish history class at the library. With a smile, he said, “Sorry Rabbi, it’s the last week of the turkey hunting season and when you have to choose between class and hunting….”. I laughed; we all had a good laugh. In humor, I quipped “wow, it’s humbling to know that you chose a turkey over your rabbi”. Humility is hard to achieve on our own, and is mostly attained through an experience that is a trigger from the outside-in.

Being a legend in your own mind, is just that, in your own mind.

This Sunday, Jewry will celebrate Pesach Sheini, the second Passover. In the Sinai desert, a group of Jews, were impure during Passover and wanted a second chance to experience the pascal lamb offering. They were not lowlifes; they were impure for a good reason, as they were tending to the bodies of Nadav and Avihu, or, according to others, Joseph’s bones being carried to Israel. Asking for a second chance, comes with the recognition that the first time around was imperfect. When we lack humility, or worse, have overblown egos, we find excuses for our past actions, even holy excuses, while refusing to admit that we may be missing something. These individuals could’ve comforted themselves by saying “We didn’t eat from the Passover lamb, as we were doing G-d’s work and Jewish law exempts us under the circumstances”. Yet, they humbly said to Moses “Lama Nigara - why should we miss this great Mitzvah”? Moses listens, brings their request to G-d, and a second Passover is gifted for all time.

It’s easy to conflate a strong self-image with egocentricity, except that one is vital for living healthfully and the other is detrimental. There were times in my life that I was too arrogant and when thinking about it, it’s, noticeably, ugly. Everything we do, whether being a spouse, a parent, a professional, a citizen, a child, a friend, is done better when done with humbleness. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “a great man is always willing to be little”, but that isn’t accurate as it’s not “being little”, it’s “being healthy”. Mother Teresa got this one right when she said, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are”.

Realizing we aren’t perfect, gives us second chances!

May G-d guard our brethren in Israel and the world over from harm and send us Moshiach speedily. May He protect the armed forces of Israel and the United States wherever they may be. Shabbat Shalom! Chazak!!! L'Chaim!!!

Holiness in Venezuela!

Anti-Semitic terrorism in Poway and Israel, Prince Harry and Meghan giving birth to royalty and of course hearing the name Robert Muller three thousand times a day, but sadly, it’s only an occasional shock-value news piece that focuses on the absolute horror being experienced by the people of Venezuela. I have a pretty good imagination, but somehow, I can’t wrap my head around children, in an oil rich country, dying of hunger, elderly being left in medicine-depleted hospitals and millions, like the Jews being exiled to Babylonia, leaving their homeland just so they can survive.

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, one my all-time favorites, has fifty-one Mitzvot including so many that are interpersonal in nature. We are taught that holiness begins with the basics: to have a just court system which doesn’t favor the wealthy or overly empathize with the poor, don’t be a gossiper, love your neighbor, don’t seek revenge, respect your elders and sages, don’t hold a grudge, don’t have uneven measures to cheat your customers, fear your parents, love the convert, help the poor, and so many others. These are all holy ways in which G-d holds us accountable to live lives of honor, treating every human being with dignity.

First lady Barbara Bush once said, “Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people - your family, friends, and coworkers, and even strangers you meet along the way”. This is something I try to impart to my children every day. Life is not a popularity contest nor is it an endeavor of selfish pursuits, rather it’s a G-d given opportunity to enhance the world for all and to do so by seeing other human beings as having been created in G-d’s image. Dictatorships begin when we forget this vital perspective.  In Venezuela, Gaza, Sudan and, sadly, even the United States, at times, we forget that mistreating/disrespecting others, is not a reflection of them but representative of our moral failure and lack of self-respect.

Loving your neighbor starts with respecting them!

May G-d guard our brethren in Israel and the world over from harm and send us Moshiach speedily. May He protect the armed forces of Israel and the United States wherever they may be. Shabbat Shalom! Chazak!!! L'Chaim!!!

Is G-d your addiction?

While Jewry is still reeling from the tragedy in Poway, we mustn’t forget about the incredible Passover celebration that preceded the heartbreaking news. The warmth with which hundreds received their hand-made Shemurah Matzah, the depth in which so many studied about the holiday, the six exciting Seders offered by Chabad’s three branches in Big Sky Country and the thousands touched by the rabbinical student visits and Montana’s Jewish Voice in the mail. I’ve been doing this for twelve years, yet for me, the inspiration increases from year to year. I’m truly honored to be part of the Montana Miracle.

Yet, the challenge is for Passover to carry on.

In this week’s Torah portion, Acharei, we read about the passing of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. While he was comforted by their holiness and by his surviving sons Elazar and Esamar, the pain he, and his wife Elisheva, experienced by their loss was so raw and deep. The Holy Or HaChaim, explains their sin as follows: they yearned for sanctity, they were addicted to G-d to a fault, reaching a spiritual peak of no return. Judaism 101 teaches that our holy moments must penetrate our mundane, even coarse, life experiences and they sinned by forgetting this vital principle. If we seek, and even attain, light, but don’t use the tools at our disposal to channel that light into the nitty gritty, then we’ve missed the boat. Nadav and Avihu knew how to get high on G-d but didn’t know how to sober up to deal with reality.

On Passover we get high. We have Seders, do lots of Mitzvot, pray in Shul, remember our loved ones at Yizkor and even make resolutions on how to keep the inspiration going. Then, Passover is over, we “turn the kitchen over”, out with the Matzah back with the Pizza and “we get real” and often lose the high. It is in the aftermath of a joyous holiday, that we must remember the “Nadav & Avihu” blunder and remain focused on G-d’s plan. If G-d wanted us to be angelic, He would’ve created us as angels in a heavenly abode. He didn’t. He wanted us as humans, with all our struggles and weaknesses, seeking a relationship with Him despite, or perhaps due to, our shortcomings.

Passover mustn’t be passed over, even after Passover!  

May G-d guard our brethren in Israel and the world over from harm and send us Moshiach speedily. May He protect the armed forces of Israel and the United States wherever they may be. Shabbat Shalom! Chazak!!! L'Chaim!!!

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