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The Rabbi Writes

The Rabbi Writes


May 18, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

Achitofel had every reason to celebrate. Appointed as president of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, his advice was constantly sought.  His intellectual greatness was such that: The counsel of Achitofel…was as if a man inquired of the word of G-d. (Samuel II 16:23)  He soon became King David’s chief advisor.

Notwithstanding, he turned traitor.  Two reasons: A) He felt that he was supposed to be king. (Talmud) B) David’s beautiful wife Bat-Sheva had once been married to a warrior named Uriah. But a besotted David sent Uriah to the front lines to be killed and then married Bat-Sheva himself.  Achitofel never forgave David: Bat Sheva was his daughter. (Yalkut)

Thus when Absalom, David’s charismatic son, rebelled, Achitofel joined. He had two agendas. A) He hoped that during the coup, he would seize power for himself. B) Here was his opportunity for revenge. Thus he became Absalom’s number one counselor.

Initially, the rebellion gained popular support and David had to flee Jerusalem.  But what worried David most was Achitofel. So David sent his devoted friend Chushai as a spy to Absalom just to frustrate Achitofel’s proposals.  Until that point, Absalom’s supporters worried that he might later feel compassion and disperse the mutineers. True, Absalom might be forgiven, but they would not.

So Achitofel recommended two actions: "Have intimate relations with your father's concubines.” This public disgrace would make the break between David and Absalom irrevocable. Note: This would also serve as sweet revenge for his daughter.  He also advised that David be pursued immediately.  Chushai knew that Achitofel was right, so he suggested the exact opposite. Urging caution, he advised that first a massive army be gathered. Absalom agreed which gave David time to reorganize.

Achitofel realized that the delay meant that David would ultimately prevail.  Not waiting for David to return to power, Achitofel strangled himself. His suicide was not haphazard. It was deliberate, as in the verse: He gave charge to his household. In fact, he gave his children three instructions: 1) Do not enter into quarrels. 2) Do not rebel against the sovereignty of David. 3) If the weather is clear on Shavuos, plant wheat.

Questions: 1) Advice #1 & 2 are redundant. If one avoids all quarrels, obviously he will not rebel. 2) Why offer agricultural advice: “If Shavous is clear, plant wheat?” 3) Achitofel’s dying words must have contained his most important insights gleaned from a lifetime rich in experience. But where exactly was the brilliance?

Answer: There are three arenas of human ambition, or as our Sages put it: three crowns. 1) The crown of Torah which encompasses all knowledge. 2) The crown of priesthood which includes spirituality. 3) The crown of royalty whose goal is power. (Ethics 4:13)

Amazingly enough, these three destinations can be reached by two very different roads. One path is based on one’s own mind and heart. In this philosophy, one’s own subjective-self determines what is true or false. The other road begins by surrendering oneself to a greater truth; to country, a people, G-d. The first asks, “What do I want of life?” the second, “What does life want of me?”

Achitofel travelled the first path.  Never did he say, ‘I don’t agree but I will do it anyway.’ But moments before he strangled himself, his life passed before his mind’s eye. And he had an epiphany. He was wrong on all 3 counts. 

Torah: True, you must inquire and understand. But if your opinion is life’s exclusive barometer, it is as foolish as refusing medicine unless you understand how antibiotics neutralize bacteria. Conversely, when your foundation is an Absolute truth, when you recognize that the Creator - who loves you unconditionally - has granted you His prescription for life, you embrace it, even if right now you don’t understand its reasons and benefits.

Note: Chitah, Hebrew for wheat, numerically equals 22, symbolizing the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So Achitofel informed his children, if you want your wheat/your ideas and philosophies to persevere, make sure your Shavuos is clear, your commitment to Torah is unshakeable. Only then will your wheat/wisdom be sustained. Ditto with the other two crowns!

Royalty: Achitofel believed that a leader’s primary quality is his confidence in his own decisions. David disagreed; a Jewish king’s power came from his submission to G-d. That is what made David special. Though both Saul and David sinned, Saul justified his actions, whereas David acknowledged his error. His readiness to be accountable to a Higher Power is what made him most worthy of the royal mantle. Only now, did Achetofel embrace the path of David.

Priesthood: The origin of all quarrels was Korach’s rebellion to gain the High priesthood. Spiritually, Korach had a worthy goal. There was only one flaw; G-d said otherwise. Serving G-d is surrendering one’s own conception of spirituality to G-d’s will. At the end, Achitofel relented.

This was Achetofel’s final message: Learn, lead, and be lofty.. But if you wish to truly become a great, you must first be small.


Based on a letter from the Rebbe, Shavuos eve, 1949


May 04, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

It’s ugly, but true: Society has always dehumanized people with disabilities. Hence they were abandoned in Greece, drowned in Spain, labeled in England and in America’s Land-of-the-Free they were locked in correctional institutions where people paid admission to gawk. Always excluded from community activities, they were shackled to hospital beds and sterilized to prevent their passing on inferior traits.

Imagine! Only in 1990 did the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantee equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities for public accommodation, government services, transportation, etc.

In contrast, Jews should be proud. When the Bible declared that man was created in the image of G-d it included all, regardless of gender, physical prowess, color, or race. Discrimination was always anathema to Torah. Thus in Jewish law, there was no distinction between murdering a healthy human or a bed-ridden cripple.

And yet, in this week’s Biblical reading, priests with a physical disability were barred from performing the service in the Holy Temple?  How is that possible! Torah which championed the dignity of all so blatantly contradicts itself?  It sounds more like Darwin than the Divine?

Judaism’s answer is profound: The crippled priest was not ‘excluded’ from the Holy Temple; he was ‘chosen’ to serve elsewhere.

Let me elaborate.  People, places, or objects are not inherently holy or perfect. Holiness is doing what G-d wants you to do; perfection is being the way G-d wants you to be. Paying tribute to my ideal of a “perfect model” is idol worship. That’s why Moses smashed the Tablets. Jews, accustomed to idolatry, attributed holiness to objects, places and people. So Moses smashed the holiest item in the world to demonstrate that there is only one barometer for perfection; what G-d wants. Nothing else!

Example: If you should ask, why are women not called to the Torah? Why don’t they wear a tallis? Answer: Since when do we worship an Aliya or tallis? We worship G-d.  

Ditto with eating matzah! On Pesach it’s holy. A day later it’s not. Judaism is what G-d wants from me at this time, in this place, in this situation. If G-d wants it, it’s awesome; if not, goodbye Charlie!

Now, serving in the Holy Temple sounds holy. It’s not. Its sole value is because G-d wants me to do it. So the moment G-d tells me this is not for you, then for me to do this is unholy, ineffective, and meaningless. Judaism is serving G-d, not my own sense of good.

There are priests whom G-d wants to serve in the Temple; there are others He wants to serve elsewhere. Not because they are excluded or rejected, but because they are chosen for another destiny.

There was a time when Jews went to the Temple in Jerusalem to find G-d. But then G-d allowed it to be destroyed. Now He is found elsewhere: In our heart, in prayer, Torah study, Mitzvos and in countless mini-Temples (synagogues). G-d is present where He tells you, not in the shrines you decide.

Similarly, for some priests the Temple is where they find G-d; for others that is precisely where they do not find Him. To order them to serve in the Temple would be a grave disservice against their unique souls, their individual journey, against their particular mission. It would be like forcing my child who is brilliant in math but tone-deaf to become a conductor. That would be cruel, because music is not in his soul, math is.

Do we know the soul of the disabled Kohen? Are we sure that serving in the Temple is good for him? What if it is exactly the other way around? Torah is not being cruel; it is being sensitive to his soul’s reality.

So what is the disabled Kohen’s mission? All priests are G-d’s spiritual ambassadors to the rest of the Jewish people. They are our link connecting us on earth to heaven above. But there are two types of Jews; those who make it to the Temple and those who do not. We are not only talking in terms of geography, but also existentially. There are souls who manage to climb the mountain of holiness; but there are others who remain far away and uninspired. They are spiritually disabled, filled with doubt.

So G-d chose certain souls who are deeply sensitive to all forms of handicaps in life, because they themselves never developed a delusional veneer of perfection. These are the physically handicapped kohanim. Their souls are perfectly suited to bring hope and healing to those that experience themselves as outcasts, far removed from the Holy Temple.

In Kabbalah, they are the lunar Jews, i.e., Divine souls sent outside the realm of holiness into the dark world, to elevate the downtrodden. If perfection is based on social convention, the handicapped Kohen is seen as inferior.  But in Judaism where G-d's will defines perfection, the handicapped priest transforms every environment into a Temple.  (3rd Lubavitcher Rebbe, Tzemach Tzedek 1789-1866)

In some ways, we are all handicapped. But these are not G-d’s punishment. They are a summons to be sensitive to the failings of others. And when we do, we encounter real perfection. Not our version, but His.

Old Clothes are Out of Style

April 27, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

This week’s Biblical reading begins with the dos and don’ts of Yom Kippur.  The High Priest, for this once-a-year-ritual, wore a unique set of garments. But what made the Day of Atonement clothing so different was what followed: “Aaron shall…store them away,” (Leviticus 16:23) meaning: forever, and not used for any other Yom Kippur. (Yoma 12b)

That’s strange. The High Priest’s daily garments - worn year round - could be used for many seasons, till they withered. Yet the Yom Kippur outfit worn only once year could never be used again? Why squander a set of good clothing?

A story: In his memoirs, Nobel Prize Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel related: At my first Simchas Torah at 770 Eastern Parkway, (Brooklyn) the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson said. “It's nice of a chasid [follower] of Vishnitz [another Chassidic group] to come to Lubavitch. But is this how they celebrate Simchas Torah in Vishnitz?”

Rebbe,” I said, “we are not in Vishnitz, but in Lubavitch.”

Then do as we do in Lubavitch,” he said.

And what do you do?"

"In Lubavitch we say L’chaim.”

In Vishnitz, too.”

So he handed me a glass filled to the brim with vodka.

Rebbe,” I said, “in Vishnitz a Chasid does not drink alone.”

Nor in Lubavitch,” the Rebbe replied. He emptied his glass in one gulp. I had no choice but to follow along.

Is one enough in Vishnitz?” the Rebbe asked.

In Vishnitz,” I said bravely, “one is but a drop in the sea.”

In Lubavitch as well.”

He handed me a second glass and refilled his own. We said L’chaim and emptied our glasses.

You deserve a brocha (blessing),” he said, his face beaming with happiness. “Name it.” I wasn't sure what to say.

Let me bless you so you can begin again.”

 And so the Rebbe blessed him. Wiesel who was still tormented by horrific sights, who refused to marry and bring children into a cruel world, ultimately rebuilt his life from the ashes, created a family, and became a spokesman for hope and conscience the world over.

On the day of his son’s bris [circumcision], friends sent gifts. “But the most moving were the flowers from the Rebbe. I guess it represented his blessings for a life invigorated with a fresh start, blossoming like a fresh flower.”

Discarding the Yom Kippur clothes emphasizes our capacity for renewal. We often become addicted to our comfort zones. We get stuck in the quagmire of our own resentment, grudges, insecurity, envy, bad habits, fear or shame. We put on a straitjacket and stay there. Yom Kippur preaches, “I can start anew.” But first remove your ‘old uniform.’

In truth, don’t wait for Yom Kippur. All of Judaism is about our ability to change. The only thing holding us back is admitting our mistakes. Thus in Temple times, the holiest man in Israel, the High Priest, mentioned the sins of others only after he spoke of his own failings.  Judaism created a culture in which people are not embarrassed to say, “I got it wrong.” Look at its daily confession.  Or its belief that though G-d knows that we would sometimes fail, He still allows us to choose! For Judaism separates the sinner from the sin, condemning the act without losing faith in the actor.

But in other societies, we dare not admit. It makes us look vulnerable. So we rationalize, justify, or blame others. This malady affects more than just politicians. Medical errors cause more than 400,000 deaths every year in the US. Many are preventable, but doctors do not want to admit they are wrong.  Even the financial crashes are predicted, but bankers refuse to change their ‘financial’ finery. And so it goes.

Our avoidance strategies are endless. We say, “Given the circumstances, it was the best that could have been done,” or “We were given the wrong facts.” So people bluff it out or engage in denial, just to vindicate themselves. Rare is the individual with the courage to say, as the High Priest did, “I messed up.”

It is more than coincidence that the name Judah, who publicly confessed his mistake, means ‘to acknowledge’. In other words, Jews are a people who like shopping for new ‘clothes’, because we recognize that old ‘mistakes’ are out of style. 

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