Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Week 5 - Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech - Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

L’shana tovah everybody! We had a double shot of Torah from last week coming to you straight up. It’s been a rough week and the coming weeks looks to be even busier, so I need the extra boost before the High Holidays begin. And the first line was so happy right? I had to start off being overly excited, but I want to talk about feeling alone.

I am going to make this a bit personal, so indulge me if you will: I feel alone. Everyday I wake up when no one is up in my apartment and ride the bus to school alone. I run from class to class to work to class to whatever else I have going on and then ride the bus back alone. Even now I write this entry in an empty room alone, miles away from my family who are celebrating together. Total bummer, but I will come back to it.

In this past week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people are about to feel alone. Moses is about to leave them in this week’s parshah and they will be for once, in a very long time, without guidance. Lost in the wilderness, if you will (cue Children of Eden song).

This sentiment though is not foreign, especially not around this time of the year. Many of us feel alone now: kids just starting school or college graduates just entering the work force. With the way the world spins and changes every day, it is easy to feel lost in the desert.

The Jewish people though are never alone because we have each other. This all sounds very “Hands Across America”-y, but think about the past couple of readings I have done. The point of Deuteronomy isn’t the stoning of adulterers and the wrath bits, but the care for the poor, the widowed, the orphan, and just each other in general. It’s a guide to never being alone. This week’s parshah really makes that sentiment concrete: unity of people.

And how could we ever feel alone? We are heirs to one of the oldest traditions known to humanity. Someone, somewhere along the line over thousands of years, has felt like you, has been like you… and they made it. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t be here as you are now. They were still standing, after wandering the desert, traversing the wilderness, overcome with the feeling of being in exile, despite being surrounded by all of God’s blessings, they stand. This past week’s reading begins:

“You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, and every Israelite man; your young ones, your wives, the stranger in your gate; from your wood-hewer to your water-drawer.”

You stand.

And it’s everyone, from the biggest to the smallest, from the ones who join things together, to the ones who split things apart, the stranger and the tribe all stand together. Moses’ last physical act in the Bible is to give the Jewish people something so that they are never alone and never without guidance: the Torah. And he knows about being alone.

Moses himself feels like he will be alone and without guidance at first, to quote this wonderful Davar Torah from the Academy of Jewish religion where I would like to possibly study (hint hint wink wink – please read this and offer me financial aid).

“At one time Moses protested that he was not a man of words, that for him speech was difficult and his lips were not fluent. But forty years later he preached the words of Deuteronomy. Throughout a full day he held forth, concluding by saying that the thing, the commandment, was not too far away or too difficult, “rather it is in your mouth and in your heart to do it.” What happened to him?”

(The rest of the article can be found here:

What did happen to him? I don’t know. I am not a rabbi; maybe I will be one day if I go to AJR. But perhaps the Haftorah has an answer… You know me. I love me some good Haftorah. Here is a brief summary, from

“The prophet begins on a high note, describing the great joy that we will experience with the Final Redemption, comparing it to the joy of a newly married couple.

Isaiah than declares his refusal to passively await the Redemption: "For Zion's sake I will not remain silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be still, until her righteousness emerges like shining light..." He implores the stones of Jerusalem not to be silent, day or night, until G‑d restores Jerusalem and establishes it in glory.”

It’s interesting the juxtaposition between Torah Reading’s first word, nitzvahim meaning “you stand” and the Haftorah, where Isaiah refuses to just stand there. Maybe that is what happened to Moses. The struggle between standing firm in your faith in God and the urge to go out and bring the righteousness out. Maybe it is the fight to become who he is meant to be that made him who he is. Circular logic, but God’s funny like that. And it would fit our namesake well; the Hebrew word, Yisrael, means “Struggled with God.” The inherent nature of Jewish is struggle with God, to wrestle with the issues in your life in a God-ly way.

And this would fit well with the theme of the new year. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote:
Thus, the Hebrew word for “year,” shanah, means both “change” and “repetition.” For the year is an embodiment of the entire range of transformations that constitute the human experience. Each year of our lives only repeats this cycle, though on the higher level to which a year’s worth of maturity and achievement have elevated us. In other words, one can say that we all live for one year, and then relive our lives for as many times as we are enabled, each time on a more elevated level, like a spiral which repeats the same path with each revolution, but on a higher plane.

You can read more of that here:

But I could be wrong! Again, I am not a Rabbi (nor a rock star). But there still might be something in the Haftorah. It is the idea that God is out there, suffering with his people and he will redeem them. Isaiah 63:9 says "In all [Israel's] afflictions, He, too, is afflicted, and the angel of His presence redeemed them..." 

So maybe it was the struggle, maybe it was knowing that God was always with Moses. Both are good lessons to take away though. Remember my long busy days from the beginning of this long blog post? No. Well go back and read it. I will wait.

Still waiting.

Alright. So, I try and see these things that bring me down as blessings in my life and the more I try it, the more it works. Every bus ride, I seem to meet someone new and interesting. So it turns out I am not alone. Last night it was a Rastafarian and an Orthodox Jew! In the past it has been Spanish professors at Harvard, pharmaceutical-related IT consultants, or just interesting people from the neighborhood who I now ride the bus with every day. True, my family is far away, but I have an over abundance of opportunities for services here. A better buffet of Judaism than I could have at home with great people who are slowly becoming members of my Harvard family.

The fact is that I am never alone, even when I feel down. I have God, opportunity, and a network of friends, family, and Jews everywhere I go. Everything is a blessing, you just need to look for it. Perhaps this is overly optimistic (especially given the serious injustices going on in my hometown of NYC right now, #occupywallst), but I have been trying to live my life this way since I have gotten here, and not a moment goes by when I am not overjoyed. Plus, how can I feel alone when badass Jews like this are out there:

Rosh Hashanah Rock Anthem  - Party Rock Anthem Parody by Aish

“It’s Time to Come Back Baby To Hear Kol Nidrei” – Lady Gaga Rosh Hashanah Remix

“The Book of Life” – “It’s a Good Life” Parody by Yeshiva University’s Maccabeats (Like GLEE, but Jewish)

Shana Tova Umetukah! Ketiva ve-chatima tovah! Tizku leshanim rabbot!

Rockstar Rabbi, out!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Week 3 - Ki Tavo - When you come into the land...

What’s up my Hebrews and Shebrews? My He-bros, if you will. (Thank you Michael for that awesome word.) I am gonna get heavy this time around, but I promise it will get better towards the end. Please wade through the darkness, for “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Thank you Zach for bringing this beautiful psalm to my attention.

It is so easy to feel cursed nowadays. You turn on the news and the world is falling apart. Personal and national debt keeps getting bigger and bigger. Ashton Kutcher is on Two and a Half Men; like I said, we are definitely cursed.

But why, you must be asking yourself: What did I do?
What did we do? If you want to know the answer, scroll down….

I don’t know; I am just a guy in grad school.

But the truth is no one does, save for the big guy. For thousands and thousands of years, people have given answers – people far wiser then I. After all, I am not a Rabbi, (I am inclinded to say it now once a post), but I have read a lot. The Book of Job provides tons of explanations, but none are that great, aside from ‘Just listen to the guy in the whirlwind.’ The Book of Tobit provides similar answers, but in a much more ‘Rockstar’ fashion; angels, demons, magical fish, and wayward bird droppings all factor into this apocryphal work to heal and renew one pious man with a very sucky life. Augustine had his whole original sin/Eve ate an apple explanation, but he stole an apple as a child and had problems with women as an adult, so … yeah. No disrespect, Augustine is my man, and I will bring him back later, but does anyone have an answer? Even Moses, in this week’s parshah, gives some advice too:

Vahayah Ki Tavo El Ha’Aretz - And it will be, when you come into the land…

… all the reasons God will love us and all the ways that we will be blessed. At this point in the reading, you are ecstatic. Break open the Johnnie Walker Red Label (which I just found out is Kosher, so I guess its Yonaton Vaqer)! Make it rain up in this bayit (Hebrew for house)! Awesome.

But then there are the curses. Curses for anyone who can’t uphold the law, and there are A LOT of laws. That’s the covenant: keep the laws and you are blessed, ignore them and you are cursed (at least the Mosaic one, God has a whole other thing going on with David and Abraham, and don’t even get me started on Jesus).

So what to do? Perfect your knowledge and action and hope for the best? It’s a good plan, the recommended plan in fact, but what about those of us who are weak of will? I know that I, the Rockstar Rabbi, am incredibly weak of will. I admit it here and now, loud and echoing throughout the caverns of the Inter-webs: I AM WEAK.

I don’t think I am alone though. Augustine’s whole thing was that he was weak, and he knew it. He would call out: God, grant me grace, but not yet! Same with Paul and the author of the Psalms. Nobody is perfect. If you know someone who is, please call me so I can alert the media and get them working on solving all those aforementioned problems.

So what do we do when Psalm 86:7 might not help? You are an imperfect person who needs to be perfect. Life sucks; What to do? This is where the whole theodicy (Latin meaning Justice of God) falls apart. Which is when wise men stop answering and try and give comfort.

Now you don’t have to read these next two articles I have linked, even though they are very good ways of dealing with the paradox of God and suffering. You don’t even need to read the part that says MY THEODICY in big bold letters.

What I do need you to do is watch the third link that I have starred. I do realize the irony that if this was am an actual Shabbat sermon I couldn’t actually show you it, but I would tell you it with my heart open and such passion, because I found it to be so moving.

Brilliant article: Sometimes the bad is good and the good is unknown to you.

But I am young and brash and impetuous – so let’s face it- some times life sucks and no amount of Chabad article will help that. Okay, maybe one more…

The sweetest fruits go bitter in our mouths feeling the need of our brethren.
The passage also talks on the first fruits and he has a lot of good points on it:

I know that this week’s parshah says you need to stone those who break the commandments, but one needs to understand the context of this within the narrative. These were a people so close to God at this moment and time that they literally could not take it. They were surrounded and infused and all encompassed by God’s presence. Thus, they had no excuse for their actions then. The world as it is now is different; it needs to be healed. It needs to be brought back to this level of Godliness.

But what about that stoning we talked about? What about the wrath of the Lord? Doesn’t the Old Testament have a reputation to maintain?


I will no doubt get into that whole speil another time, but for now, I tell you that God loves. God loves. He gives unceasingly. That is why these past couple of torah readings have all included commandments to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan. You are God’s foot soldiers in the spiritual warfare of life, and God does not want you to leave anyone behind. It is just the kinda god God is; God would give the clothes off his back if he had a back, or clothes, or a corporeal form. (He has a backside which Moses sees, but let’s not get into being flashed by the Divine Presence (Exodus 33:23)).

The haftorah of this week and the past couple of weeks are about the Lord forgiving and renewing and giving, despite Israel’s many many MANY misgivings and faults. It is all building up to the renewal of the year (Rosh Hashanah) and great redemption of Yom Kippur. That’s why they are placed that way. They compliment each other. 

Moses says in this week’s reading:
If you will listen to the voice of G-d... and observe the commandments... All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you…” (Deuteronomy 28:2)

Now I have some curses. In fact, it is even easier to recognize those curses over the blessings, but that’s not the challenge of life. It’s not to be overtaken by curses, or non-chalant about your place in life. The challenge is to be overtaken by your blessings. Swim in them; let them engulf you and make your heart leap and your soul dance.

When it comes down to it, I have so many blessings in my life. I am healthy, I have an amazing support network of friends, loved ones, and mentors, I have intelligent and good looking readership, I go to one of the most prestigious universities in the world,  and so many things come naturally to me. So often in my life, has just talking to someone rewarded me a thousand times over. I am truly blessed.

****************WATCH THIS***************
Sometimes in life, you think you can’t find the blessings in the curse. This man sufferes one of the worst things a person can suffer: to have both his children killed on the same day. But watch how he finds the blessings:

My final word is this: I love you. I am gonna try my hardest to love the way God does, but I will fall short… and that’s okay. As long as I work to make it better. As long as I love you just as much as I love everyone who reads my blog. As long as I love that homeless guy outside the bus stop enough to show him the compassion those curses keep in my mind. As long as I love that that nice person I keep having interesting conversations with at the Chabad House enough to keep my mind and heart open to another person. I even love the class of Jesuit educated high school students that are reading this, because they will take it as an opportunity to learn some Torah, commune with their Jewish brethren, and set the world on fire (in a good way). I love them all with compassion, kindness, and openness.

By saying this I don’t demean my love. That’s not how love works, if we are to try and emulate God in this respect.

It is not profane because I do not keep it separate; if anything, love is more holy when it is shared.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Parshah Ki Teizei; When you go out...

Shalom and welcome to Week 2 of the Rockstar Rabbi blog. I feel it should be pointed that I am neither a Rabbi nor a Rockstar. I am neither particularly wise nor gifted musically. I am just out here, trying to make the best of it all.

Which brings me to this past week’s parshah: Ki Teitzei, or “When you go out…”

What is ‘out?’ Or more appropriately, where? I go out a lot. I carouse. I go to class. I go to work. I carouse a bit more. Heck, this past Shabbas I went out and enjoyed a bottle of scotch with the local Chabad House. Is this the “going out” that the passage is discussing? The line continues:
When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands…” (Deut. 21:10).

Woah! Easy there Mr. Rockstar Rabbi! I ain’t going to no war! You think to yourself.

And I reply, Woah woah! Easy there entranced reader of my blog! I ain’t telling you to go to war and wouldn’t do it myself either. You also used a double negative, but who is paying attention?

So the question is: War. What is it good for?

Okay. That isn’t the question. I just couldn’t pass up the joke. The question really is:
Why does this passage, a passage that contains the most mitzvahs of any for doing good and bringing peace to the world, begin with “when you go to war?”

First, a story of two people; I promise I will keep it short. I was advised by a very brilliant and very beautiful woman that the first post ran a bit long, so I take her advice and shorten this post.

The first person… My Rabbi had some sort of flu on Friday. Another Chabad rabbi led the service while his wife and the Rabbi’s wife helped to run the big Shabbat Dinner for all the poor grad students. Real menches. However, when it came time to give the Davar Torah (lit. word of Torah – kinda like a sermon), the healthy Rabbi didn’t get up to speak. Instead it was my sick Rabbi that did. He stood up, oscillated in the air for a moment, and then balanced himself by grabbing the table for support. He looked tired in a way I couldn’t imagine, given his usual lively self. But he summoned the energy and spoke the moving words I needed to hear at that moment. He pushed on. I will tell you what he said after this.

The second person… I have a friend who has had a rough couple of months. She has had some intense professional problems, even more intense family problems, and raw dealings with friends and significant others on top of it all. It has not been good for her recently. On Friday, it got worse when she received a call from her doctor about some irregular cell growth. Given her history with cancer before, they are concerned and want to run some tests, they say. She breathed and called me. I, not dealing with it as well as she did, in turn bought that bottle of scotch I mentioned earlier. She is all set to take the tests and is unwilling to let it slow her down. That’s why she inspires me: despite all this, despite the worry and never ending struggle, she pushes on.

THE POINT: The Rabbi on Friday night explained that the mitzvahs/commandments of these passages are tied to its title because Life is spiritual warfare. You are always fighting this spiritual war. But you choose how you fight. You can choose to be on the level of your enemies in this war by conceding to them and fighting without regard for others, or you can choose to be better than your enemies by improving the w as you ‘fight’ through the mitzvahs. That’s why these people inspire me: they never stop fighting this spiritual war, no matter what, but still remain good people who serve as examples to others and to me.

It reminds me of a lot of things my mentors have said.  Daniel Schneider says “Keep swinging.” He is a real inspiration as well so, while I am on the topic, I would like to plug his programs:, My dad, in a similar fashion, says to be “fearless”

And fearless is good in the face of mounting spiritual forces.

It reminds me of a Matisyahu song, Refuge:

As well, you choose how you fight this spiritual war. Do you so as God’s slave, God’s employee, or God’s partner? I won’t do this justice, so for more on this, please read the following - it’s quite brilliant and surprisingly inclusive:

On the topic of war, this week’s parshah also mentions Amalek, the final boss of the Exodus in a way: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt. That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear G-d. Therefore... you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.” (Deut. 25: 17 -19)

Amalek attacks the people lagging behind who are exhausted from leacing Egypt. He is the Gary Oak of the Exodus. He does brazenly in an effort to make the people doubt their own faith and the strength of God. He represents that skepticism we all have: the kind where you doubt yourself for the sake of doubting. He is exploiting a weakness and the best way to protect yourself is to know that weakness and understand how to fortify against it. If you fall, learn from it and obliterate that doubt that caused you to fall in the first place.

So what is your spiritual battlefield? Who is your enemy, waiting to strike as you are victorious but tired? How will you fight this war with this enemy?

Be fearless. Figure out how you want to work with God and do God’s commandments. Name your Amalek and wipe them from your memory, and keep swinging.

Have a good rest of the week and a great Shabbas!

-The Rockstar Rabbi

P.S. - I read this quote and really liked it. It’s about how to deal with doing good in the world and really captured how I feel sometimes about trying to do it:

The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great and the Master is pressing... It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. –The Ethics of The Fathers.