Views on the News

Jews, Elections and a Chabad Rabbi

October 31, 2010 11:18 AM

Let me start with a disclaimer: For the first eight years of my adult/legal-voting-age life I did not exercise my right to vote. I think it took my moving from laissez-faire California, where I was born, to seriously blue Massachusetts, where I am Chabad rabbi, for me to be influenced by my community members to believe that regardless of where I stand on the issue of the day, not voting is akin to not feeding my children, G‑d forbid. I have a civic responsibility.

I think the intensity that now grips the nation about the upcoming mid-term election arrived in Massachusetts a number of years early. A few years ago, a couple of members got into a comfortable debate about politics at the Kiddush after Shabbat services. One thing led to another, and before long there was herring on the ceiling, cholent on the walls, and epithets being lobbed from one side of the room to the other.

OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but things did get so out of hand that I allow no discussion of politics at the Kiddush now, and only five minutes, strictly enforced, of sports talk (it's the whole Red Sox/Yankee thing, another toxic mix). But I have seen people walk out of shul and never return, sadly, over a disagreement about the war in Iraq.

So what is it that gets everyone so crazy about politics? As the Baal Shem Tov often said, from everything you can learn something. What on earth can we learn from the seriously partisan bickering and national chaos surrounding the upcoming mid-term elections?

I will stick to my own rules in this article about not discussing politics, at least in the sense of candidates or issues (forget about it, I'm not weighing in on "healthcare" or "the stimulus") as that can get sticky quickly and lest we lose the message.

What is an election?

In the great wisdom of the founders of this country (a country that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, often called the medinah shel chesed, "country of kindness"), as stated in the Constitution, federal elections are held every four years for the presidency and every two years for Congress. This creates a balance of powers, what is known as a system of "checks and balances" between the various branches of government.

The brilliance of this arrangement is most clearly seen when the system breaks down. If one body is allowed to become too powerful, the saying that "if power corrupts, then absolute power corrupts absolutely" is sadly seen to be true.

And so, regardless of where you stand on many of the very important issues of the day, a day of reckoning is coming. For some it will be a referendum on the president's agenda thus far in his term; for others, it is just the ebb and flow of our democracy. When the president has both houses on his side, there is an inevitable shift during the mid-terms.

Regardless, one thing that is absolutely clear is that the way our system was set up, if you don't like what is going on, you have a chance at making a change every so often, "rebirthing" things.This theme is central to Judaism and particularly as expressed in Chabad Philosophy. Many are of the mindset that life is what it is and we have to accept it and learn to live with it. Now, on some level this is true. For example, when dealing with an illness that is incurable, G‑d forbid, or with other material matters that are simply out of our hands, we must make the best of the situation.

However, in matters of the spirit, and particularly of personal self-development, we can always vote a new leader into our personal life. What's more, we don't have to wait four years or even two; we can do it daily and even hourly and even every minute.

The Alter Rebbe, in his magnum opus, the Tanya, describes the body as a city which is the battlefield of our two primary (no pun intended) souls: the G‑dly and the animalistic. They wage perpetual war within us, constantly vying for control of our personal house (of representatives – the expressions of our soul, our thought, speech, and action). All too often, we fall prey to the winds of the world – power, addiction, disillusionment, or simple laziness –and we let our constituents (our body and soul) down. It happens, and when it does, we can call for a special election. We don't need to file any special paperwork; we simply open a book of Psalms, a prayer book, or a book of study and try to remember what our mission was in the first place.
We can vote out the leader that has lost its way (our animalistic instincts) and vote a new, refreshed member into our "body" of leadership. We can start anew.

So when you vote next Tuesday, remember that just as important as who you vote for and what ballot initiatives you vote for is making sure that your personal "house" is in order. And if not, let's get the correct leadership in place there too.

Welcome Home

October 15, 2010 7:15 AM

Together with 15% of the world's population (that's about 1 billion people), I just watched the last miner being freed from the Chilean copper mine that was his home, together with 32 fellow miners, for the past 69 days.

During the first 17 days after the mine collapsed, the miners had no idea if people knew where they were or that they were alive. When, with 48 hours worth of food rations remaining, contact was finally established, they learned that they would have to wait several weeks until they could be brought to the surface. They survived thanks to the supplies rescue workers lowered to them.

I watched as the last miner entered the capsule and emerged aboveground 15 minutes later to welcoming applause, whistles and sirens and the embraces of family, friends, co-workers and the president of Chile, the culmination of rescue efforts costing some 22 million dollars.

As I watched, I thought to myself, what lesson can I learn from this episode?

Then I remembered a metaphor I heard as a child describing the reality we live in. The images I saw before me brought that metaphor to life.

Imagine for a moment that the miners had not been rescued, but were given the food and supplies necessary to continue living comfortably underground. Imagine that they weren't miners, but families that rappelled down the chute on a vacation trip and suddenly found themselves condemned to live in the mine for the foreseeable future.

Imagine that, as years pass, children are born in the mine who have never been aboveground — their experience of "working for a living" being nothing more than opening a box that comes down the chute everyday...

Once a year, the parents mark yet another anniversary of the day they came to this place, and cry and talk about returning to a very different life in a place called "home." A place where there are things called sunshine, wind, snow, meadows, rivers, showers, seashore, palm trees, horses, billions of human beings.... Where food comes up from the earth, not down a chute in a box....

The children listen with disbelief. What are these old geezers talking about? They must be fantasizing. The children ask questions --"Daddy, why does a year have 365 days? What are seasons? What is a sun?"-- and their parents answer. Their parents have all the answers to their constant questions and seem convinced that they are right. But the children are still skeptical. It all seems so unreal.

Now imagine the original parents pass on, and now a second and third generation of mine dwellers replace them. The older generation transmits to the younger what they heard from their elders, the immigrants, but they cannot answer the many questions, nor "prove" the information they received from their parents, since they have never seen any world other than the underground mine.

One day a capsule comes down the chute, and the native mine dwellers are told that they should enter it in order to finally be freed.

What do you think their reaction would be?

Now, before you laugh at the silly mine dwellers, think for a moment. How different are we from them?

We, too, live a life very different from what it's like at "home."

What do I mean by "home" you ask?

You see? That is a good example of what I am talking about. We are so used to the lifestyle we are living that we don't even know where "home" is.

"Home" is where we come from. "Home" is where we aspire to be. "Home" is where things are the way they should be.

"Home" is not so much a place as a condition.

"Home" is where our maximum, rather than minimum, potential can be expressed. "Home" is where we can behave as we really are.

"Home" is the world the way it was meant to be, where we can live as we were meant to live.

"Home" is the world the way G‑d intended it to be. "Home" is the way life will be once Moshiach is here.

Sometimes we get so comfortable in our underground mine that we dread leaving its "security." We do not fully trust the capsule – the teachings of the Torah, especially as it has been taught to our generation by the Rebbe – that has "invaded" the security of our lifestyle in order to free us from it.

The miners, who had been underground for just 69 days, already needed special sunglasses to protect their eyes from the sudden exposure to light as they exited the capsule.

This week's Parshah begins with G‑d telling Abraham to leave his "land, birthplace and parents' home" and to go to "the land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1).

Our sages point out that the words used by G‑d, "lech-lecha," can be understood to mean "go to yourself," and the Hebrew terms for "your land, birthplace and parents' home" can be understood to mean "your personal desires, habits and ideas." In other words, G‑d was teaching Abraham, and through him, all of us, that in order to reach your true, essential self, you must first be free from your comfortable, superficial self.

Once we recognize this, we are well on our way to freedom.

But in order to leave our underground reality, we have to want to leave.

We need to want Moshiach now in order for him to come and bring us home.

The Cave, the Real World & the Legacy of the Elders

October 14, 2010 8:50 PM

Let's allow ourselves a little imagination. Let's imagine that instead of miners in Chile, a father and mother with small children found themselves trapped within the earth's bowels. Maybe two such families. Let's say that the people above managed to lower to these two families food, light and energy, but without any communication. And let's say this remained the status quo for 100 or so years, until technology advanced to the point that they could be rescued.

Now let's imagine what might be happening down in that almost-forsaken cavern all those years. Children are growing up with no memory of the world above. The parents take it upon themselves to educate them. The class goes something like this:

"Child, you must know that this is not the real world. The real world is up there. See, where that light comes from, where the rope lowers down food and energy for us down here."

"What's up there, Mommy? What's up there, Daddy?"

"Up there, there are people. They walk upon the soil, upon which grows grass and trees. Up there, there is a big sky, all blue, with a bright sun shining over it."

"What is a sun?"

"A sun is a bright ball of fire that shines in the sky, lighting up all the world!"

"What holds it there?"

"It is just there, burning in the sky."

"You saw it?"

"We saw it every day."

"Wow! Can we go? Can we go?"

"Yes, my child, if we keep digging. We dig and those up there who send us the food also dig, and one day we will meet. Then you will also see the real world. In the meantime, remember always, this is not the real world."

Now imagine those children growing older and bearing children of their own. In the stale air of the cavern, the older generation has already passed on. And now it is up to the children to hold that same conversation with their children:

"Children, you must know that this is not the real world."

"Say what?"

"No, the real world is up there—where the food and energy comes from."

"So what's up there?"

"I've never seen it, but my father and mother told me there are people there, but not in caves. They walk on soil on which grass grows, beneath a sky…"

"What is a sky?"

"It's big and blue, and bright ball of fire called the sun hangs there."

"In the middle of the sky?"

"Yep, but it doesn't burn anything."

"Weird. You sure about this stuff?"

"Like I said, that's what my Mom & Dad told me. I trust them. You should too. And they said that if we keep digging, according to the instructions they gave us, one day we'll connect with that real world."

Keep that imagination going. Fast forward to the next generation:

"Okay, kids, class time."

"More tunnel geography today?"

"No, today is a special class. Something our parents told us that their parents said we must teach you all. It's called real world studies."

"That's okay, we already know how to live in the real world."

"No you don't, because you've never been there. This is not the real world. The real world, they said, is up there, where the food and energy comes from. There are people up there walking around on grass underneath a sky."

"Walking on what? Under…"

"Don't be disrespectful. This is what our parents taught us. And they heard…"

"So who says they got it right. Sounds like another fairy tale to me."

"You have to have more faith in your elders. They said that in the sky is a big ball of fire called a sun."

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. You can't have a ball of fire just suspended there!"

"Well then how does the food and energy get down here? Who sends it to us?"

"That's a lousy question. It just comes. That's just the way the world works."

Now imagine the rebellion seething, boiling and overflowing as the elders hopelessly attempt to defend a position they never really got straight to begin with.

And then, just as the legacy of the elders seems crushed to the ground, the ceiling bursts open and in crashes a real live person.

"Whoa! Where did you come from?"

"Oh, I'm from up there."

"Up where?"

"You know, up there beneath the sky, where the sun shines."

"You believe in that stuff, too?"

"Believe? Hey, that's where I'm from!"

"Tell us about it."

So this real live person begins to tell. And now even the most jaded among the cynics are sitting up to hear his words.

Now let go of the imagination and enter back into our world—where all this tale has happened and continues to happen again and again.

The tale is told in different forms about Abraham, about the Arizal and about the Baal Shem Tov. Where tradition had failed, these men of vision succeeded—because for them it was not just a story of the past; it was real, more real than the earth they stood upon. In that sense, it could be applied to many of the great tzadikim, each one in his or her own way.

And now, perhaps the event of the Chilean miners for whom we all prayed and cheered will help us apply the tale to yet another tzadik, one for whom we have waited all these years, the one who will be called the Moshiach.

May the ceiling burst open very soon.

All of Us Are Miners

A Chassidic Parable and the Rescue at Copiapó

October 14, 2010 1:42 PM

Making It Out Alive

"O Lord, You have brought my soul from the grave; You have revived me from my descent into the pit."1

Today the entire world is talking about a miracle of survival. The rescue at the Copiapó mine gives us pause to reflect on the remarkable capacity of the human being to live through conditions that resemble death itself. While the actual rescue brings the story to its climax, what is much more amazing is what happened for the sixty-nine days beforehand – that the miners were able to stay alive long enough to be rescued at all.

A Lesson in Survival

The Baal Shem Tov taught2 that from everything that one sees or hears, one should try to learn a lesson. Thankfully the miners are all safe, and the harrowing episode is ending in joy and elation. But what can we take away from our knowledge of this story?

For one thing, this amazing story causes us to consider the question: What are the most basic needs for human survival? What does a human being need to live?

The rescue operation didn't just work to provide the miners with their physical needs such as food, water and air. Experts were brought in from all over the world to help promote the miners' mental and emotional health as well. NASA specialists who monitored the crisis commented that perhaps the most decisive factor in the miners' survival was that a clear leader stepped forward early on to organize the men.

Luis Urzua, 54, the shift chief on duty when the mine collapsed, made the tough decision to ration food – a spoonful of tuna for each man every forty-eight hours – for the first seventeen days until contact was made with rescue crew above ground. In the days that followed, Urzua continued to lead his men, and, under his organization, various roles emerged. One miner became the group's spokesman, another saw to their health, and still another was designated to provide comic relief.

When we consider our most basic needs, most of us probably think only of bodily necessities like air, water and food. Perhaps this is because we, who merely ponder this question theoretically, tend to overlook the obvious. When we look at the men who actually emerged from nothing less than a sixty-nine day burial within the bowels of the earth, we see that there may be a need even more crucial to survival than all others. The need for a leader.

Working in the Mine

On a few occasions, the Rebbe related a Chasidic parable of his father-in-law's that likens us Jews to a crew of miners.3 Our souls descend from on High to do a job down below, the Rebbe explained. Like work in a mine, our duties are strenuous and the conditions are dangerous. As we navigate the twists and turns of this life looking for its treasures, one thing is crucial to our safety and survival. We must have a leader, and we must follow his direction.

So, in light of this parable, and in light of recent events, let's ask the age-old question. What is the secret of Jewish survival? Is it anything like the survival of the thirty-three miners? Could it be that we have survived innumerable challenges to our existence because, even when our collective mission has lead us into the deepest and darkest places in the realm of human experience, there has always been a leader down there with us?

The Limits of a Leader

The Rebbe explained that there is another aspect to the parable of the miners. Although the miners' welfare depends on submitting themselves to the care and direction of their foreman, there is one thing that he cannot do for them. Each miner has to have access to the lifeline that connects the mine to the world above.

In spiritual terms, a Jewish leader can set an agenda for how we as Jews ought to live. But the leader can't live for us. Each of us needs to have our own lifeline to the One Above in the form of a vital and conscious connection with G‑d.

To Live or Enliven?

There is a verse in the Book of Habakkuk4 that reads, "The righteous one will live by his faith." Because Scripture is written without vowels, a single word may take on various meanings. In this case, by changing the vocalization of the verb, this same verse may be read, "The righteous one will enliven with his faith."

Is the tzaddik defined as one who lives his own life by faith, or as one who enlivens others with faith?

When the Chabad school of Chasidism first emerged in the late 1700s, one of the key points by which Chabad differed from the other branches of the fledging Chasidic movement had to do with which reading of this verse described the role of a Chasidic rebbe.5

The Alter Rebbe, founder of the Chabad method of "intellectual Chasidism," insisted that although a rebbe could teach his disciples how to relate to G‑d, he could not "give them life" – that is – have a relationship with G‑d on their behalf. Each and every soul that descends to toil down here on earth must have its own connection to the Source. In practical terms this means that each of us must have a personal appreciation for G‑d that comes as a result of our own study and meditation.

Whether we speak of our bodily needs or our spiritual needs, we cannot rely on someone else to give us life – not even on the very person who is keeping us alive. Maybe that's why being a Jew requires such a unique blend of deference and independence. Maybe that's also why the best metaphor to describe the secret of our miraculous survival is the image of miners, who, no matter how deep they must go, always remain connected to their source up above.


Keser Shem Tov, Addendum, sec. 127ff


The parable was written by the Rebbe's father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. In the original (Sefer HaSichos 5705, p. 50) there are two different examples – that of miners and deep-sea divers. Common to both is that they descend until they are cut off from life above ground. The Rebbe explained both aspects. The miners are looking for coal, which produces heat, and the divers are looking for pearls, which are things of beauty, thus representing our mission to infuse our service of G‑d with both warmth and beauty. For an edited version of this talk, see Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XX, pp. 171-179. For the unedited transcript, see Sichos Kodesh 5721, 17 Tishrei, ch. 36.

It is interesting to note that, exactly fifty years later from the date of the Rebbe's talk on 17 Tishrei, 5721 (17 Tishrei corresponding to Sept. 25, 2010) is the day on which the rescue capsule built to lift the men out of the mine finally arrived on site. In the transcript, the Rebbe mentions that he had spoken about this parable on the previous Shabbat, but wanted to talk about it in greater detail at this gathering.




Likkutei Dibburim (English translation), Vol. I, p. 311

The Miners Are Free

October 13, 2010 4:20 PM

I'm sitting here now, with the news playing in the background of the Chilean miners being rescued one by one. On my way into school this morning they were up to ten or eleven. Now I hear the cheering as number twelve emerges, as the previous ones did, in good spirits, upbeat and healthy.

Truly a miracle. I remember a few months ago, 69 days to be exact, when the shaft collapsed, thinking to myself, what a horror, what a pity. Then, a couple of weeks later when they discovered that they were somehow still alive, I was amazed at the apparent miracle, but particularly at the daunting challenge that still lay in front of them—to stay alive, stay alert, stay upbeat until the rescuers could figure out how to get them out.

What a frightening situation! To be stuck in a very small space, for an indefinite period of time. The claustrophobia, the fear of the unknown, dividing tiny portions of food and making it stretch endlessly so that all could survive. I wondered at the time if I could ever do it.

As time progressed, the rescue efforts began, importing experts from around the world—doctors, engineers, psychologists, the list goes on. It was a mission facing unprecedented odds; each contingency needed to be addressed.

When they got a larger shaft open they were able to send down food, medicine, cameras and other critical items to keep the miners going. I could be wrong about this, but I don't believe that they were popping pills all day to fight depression.

How, I continued to ask myself, are they doing it?

Only the next few weeks and months will confirm, but based on the news reporting, I posit the following. Two key ingredients (ones that our faith demands of us as well) were employed in full force.

Ingredient One: They had a strict regimen of rules and regulations that all obeyed. Everyone was forced to realize that the future of each of them depended on the others. There was no such thing as "every man for himself." They divided food in a simple manner to make sure everyone ate. They had a strict regimen of exercise that everyone needed to adhere to, so that they could stay fit and sane and be the correct size to fit into the rescue capsule. They needed each other. They needed to get along and work as a team to get the job done. They were responsible for one another.

As a rabbi, I am often asked why there are so many rules in Judaism. Why isn't Judaism easier and less restrictive? This story provides a perfect answer. Life is a journey towards an ultimate rescue. If we did whatever we pleased without regard for one another, while we might temporarily feel free, we'd ultimately feel bogged down by our own selfishness, and we'd never get out of our cave. The rules of Torah are not there to restrict us, but to guide us through the labyrinth of life's caves and collapsed mines. They are the solution, not the problem.

Ingredient Two: Our mutual responsibility to one another. In Judaism, it's called Ahavat Yisrael. As it says in Ethics of the Fathers (1:14), "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" We are all responsible for one another, and the miners' story highlighted this perfectly. For the rescue to be successful, they had to work as a team.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, once compared our mutual interdependence to a mission in outer space: if one astronaut wants to light up a cigarette, he cannot simply do it. His selfish actions would jeopardize everyone's lives.

So too in our own lives—each person's life depends on the other. Sometimes this is obvious, as seen in Chile, and sometimes we need to dig a bit to feel and know it. But it is always true.

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...
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