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© 2019 Rabbi Tal Sessler

ARTICLES

Moses: The Birth of Empathy

In our parashah, which is the concluding portion of the book of Genesis, we read about the passing of Jacob and Joseph. To borrow from Churchill, our portion narrates: “The end of the beginning.” According to Rashi, it is in the aftermath of Jacob’s death that “the subjugation in Egypt began.” 

Genesis: Family and Its Discontents 

The book of Genesis/Beresheet, which we will be concluding next week BH, is the longest book of the Torah, and includes 12 portions. 
Its most pervasive theme and leitmotif is that of family, specifically “family and Its discontents,” to paraphrase Freud’s foundational work from the 1930’s “Civilization and Its Discontents.” 

Joseph: The Birth of Meritocracy

Judaism came to the world in an age in which hereditary privilege was the way of the world. Princes were poised to inherit their fathers’ monarchical status and become kings, and slaves were doomed to remain subjugated and enslaved for perpetuity.

Conscience: A Jewish Invention

Hitler once said that the conscience is a Jewish invention. He was right. It was Judaism which brought to the world the notion that we all possess universal and inherent dignity on account of our divine image, and it is the Torah which commands us to heed our responsibility to those more vulnerable than we are (code words: the stranger - whom the Torah commands us to love as we love ourselves, the widow and the orphan). 

The Jewish Condition & The Human Condition

Abraham is a living legend in his own lifetime. He is revered by his contemporaries, who address him as a “Prince of G-d in our midst.” Abraham, with true spiritual humility, describes himself to the local people as “A stranger and a resident amongst you.” This statement made by Abraham is strange and puzzling. How could one possibly be both a stranger and a resident?

Fate and Destiny

With the Divine command to Abraham in last week’s parshah of “Lech Lecha” (“Go forth”), Jewish destiny was born, and with it, the idea that our lives are an open-ended horizon, that we are the masters of our own destiny, and that the good life necessarily entails the striving “to be a blessing” to others. 

Why fast on Tisha be'Av?

We fast on Tisha be'Av in solidarity with those amongst us who were expelled from their homes, or dispossessed. We fast in remembrance of those who were baselessly imprisoned, or mock-executed, or executed in actuality. We fast because we dare not forget those darkest of hours and days, in which we knew not, whether we will actually make it out of the old country alive and in one piece, and whether we will actually get to see our most beloved of relatives ever again. 

The Price of Hate

Three times in our history we went into exile. The first time we went into exile was after the selling of Joseph, about which we read in this Shabbat’s parshah. 

The Essence of Community

The Talmud ascribes two chief reasons for the emergence of prescribed daily prayers in Judaism. The first reason is substitutive, namely that the daily prayers were instituted in order to replace the daily offerings of Temple times.

22nd Anniversary of the Rabin Assassination: 22 Years Later

Yitzhak Rabin was Israel personified. In his youth, Rabin fought in the Haganah (Jewish Defense Forces), prior to Israel's establishment. At age 25, Rabin led the battles to defend Jewish Jerusalem. As General of the Northern Command in the early 1960's, Rabin secured Israel's vital water and irrigation needs. During the Six Day War, as Chief of Staff, it was Rabin who led the IDF, in one of the most outstanding military campaigns in the history of modern warfare.

Abraham: The Birth of Destiny

Western culture is by and large a reflection of the interaction and tension between two titanic civilizational forces, namely ancient Israel on the one hand, and ancient Greece on the other hand.

Murder in the name of G-d / The problem of religious fanaticism

Our Torah portion this Shabbat presents us with the quint-essential zealot, a man called Pinchas, who took the law into his own hands, and murdered a fellow-Jew who was steeped in idolatrous practices and immorality. 

Parashat Pinchas: You are what you consistently do

If somebody asked you to name the most important verse in the Torah, what would you say? The Jerusalem Talmud actually discusses this question. In this talmudic passage, Rabbi Akiba proposes the verse: “Love your fellow person as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

The Gift of Failure

Every book of the Torah deals with a central issue of the human condition. Genesis is about "family and its discontents." From Isaac and Ishmael to Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers, sibling rivalry in particular, and familial disputations in general, constitute a chief leitmotif in the opening book of the Pentateuch. The book ends with familial reconciliation, once Joseph pardons his brothers in Egypt. 

Personal Growth: The Purpose of Human Existence

Our parshah contains the tragic story of the twelve spies whom Moses sent out from the desert, in order to check out and survey the Promised Land. Ten of the twelve spies came back to the people with a defeatist attitude. They stated that because the cities of the land are so well fortified, and the inhabitants of the land so gigantic, there is no way that we could ever win Israel. As a result of that defeatist attitude, that entire generation died in the desert, and did not make it into the Promised Land.

Re-integrating the Self

Today is the 17th of Tammuz, the day in which according to our tradition Moses broke the first set of tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them. Centuries later, tradition has it that the 17th of Tammuz also coincided with the walls of Jerusalem crumbling down, during the Roman siege, which preceded the destruction of the Second Temple during the year 70 CE.

Tibor Rubin: A Hero for Our Time and All Times

Tibor Rubin was born at the wrong place and at the wrong time. He was a Jew, and he was born in Vienna Austria in 1929, which means that when the Nazis entered his hometown, he was nine years old. Three years later, at the age in which many Jewish boys usually train for the bar mitzvah, Tibor was sent to Mauthhausen death camp. 

The Imperative of Work

Sigmund Freud teaches us that we achieve our well-being through our work and intimate relationships. The conclusion of the book of Exodus this Shabbat is a case in point with regard to the former. Coming out of Egypt, from a state of political bondage and inner slavery, the Jewish people were akin to a spoiled child. Everything that we had, was given to us gratuitously from above by G-d: the miraculous delivery out of Egypt by way of the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna from the sky, and more. 

Three Types of Intelligence 

Bezalel Ben Uri was the architect of the tabernacle in desert-times. HaShem tells Moses that Bezalel is imbued with Hochma (wisdom), Bina (intelligence), and Da'at (supreme knowledge). These three intellectual modes are distinct, and yet inter-related. Hochma (wisdom), is the intuitive creative spark of genius, a conceptual breakthrough.

Humility and Grandeur: The Legacy of Menachem Begin

The 25th anniversary of the passing of Menachem Begin was commemorated in Israel this week. Begin, Israel's sixth Prime Minister, was the most religious leader Israel had known. In 1977, shortly after having been elected, Begin traveled to the United States in order to meet with President Carter. En route to D.C., Begin insisted on stopping in New York, in order to also receive a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Soloveitchik, before his meeting with the president. 

The Father of Chabad

Last week, the Jewish world commemorated the anio/Yahrzeit of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founding Rabbi of Chabad. The Rebbe's Kabbalistic masterpiece, the Book of "Tanya", is the foundational book of Chabad psychology and worldview.

Two Kinds of Exile

Jacob is on his deathbed in Egypt. He asks to be buried in Israel, rather than in exile. There are two kinds of exile. Worldly exile is a geo-political exile, in which people find themselves uprooted from their birthplace.
But the Kabbalah teaches us that there's a far deeper and more devastating mode of exile than political exile, namely - spiritual exile.

Live Before You Die:

Moses tried to address the Jewish people. But the people did not listen to him, because they were "short of breath, and overworked." 
Like our ancestors of antiquity, we moderns are also so engrossed in our work and worldly obligations, to the extent that we leave very little time and energy for spirituality, for the refinement of our souls.

Life is suffering, teaches the Buddha

Judaism agrees, in the sense that suffering and pain are an intrinsic and inseparable part of the human condition. In our weekly portion, Jacob meets the Pharaoh for the first time. In response to the Pharaoh's question, Jacob sums up his existence with the following words: "Few and bad were the days of my life". No doubt, Jacob had it tough. He had to run for his life from home at a young age. 

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi teaches us that a glowing candle represents humanity's ultimate battle and life-mission. The flame of the candle yearns to ascend upward to the celestial and the holy, whereas the wax of the candle pulls the candle downward to the ephemeral and the finite. 

Settling Down

The name of our Torah portion is "Vayeshev", which means "He settled down" (התיישב). Jacob settles down in Israel after many decades of living abroad. Jacob achieved many things in his life. He spent years working on his spiritual growth, and became a great Torah scholar. Jacob also went out to the "real world", and excelled in business. And he also raised a large and beautiful family. 

The Story of the Shamash

Fire is a unique substance. Of all the different physical entities in the world, fire is the only one that once you give of it unto another, you are
In no way diminished. 

Jacob vs. Esau

Jacob and Esau meet after twenty years. They both amassed a great fortune. When they report to each other about their financial standing, Esau says: "yesh li rav" (I have a lot), whereas Jacob states: "yesh li kol" (I have everything I need). 

Two Approaches to Life

The topic of our parashah is Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau represent many things: Body and soul, Judaism and paganism, spirit and matter.
Jacob asks Esau if he is interested in selling his spiritual legacy (birthright) for the sensuous pleasures of the flesh (tasty food). Esau’s response is basically as follows: “Look, I am going to die one day anyway, so why should I care about a spiritual legacy?” (Genesis 25:32).

The Kabbalah of Freddie Mercury

When I was in high school I used to play in a rock band. I played bass guitar, and we mostly played popular songs of leading rock bands such as Guns and Roses, Metallica and Queen. I was reminded of all this last Monday, when I read about the fantastic rock concert which the band Queen gave in Tel Aviv last week, with some fifty thousand fans cheering in the excruciating humidity of Israel’s coastal summer.

The Passing of Shimon Peres 

Together with the entire Jewish people, and all peace-loving people throughout the world, we at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, lower our heads today with solemnity and salutation, at the news of the passing of the world's foremost statesman, the honorable Shimon Peres.

The Passing of Shimon Peres 

Together with the entire Jewish people, and all peace-loving people throughout the world, we at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, lower our heads today with solemnity and salutation, at the news of the passing of the world's foremost statesman, the honorable Shimon Peres.

The New iPhone 7S: A Jewish Spiritual Perspective

On Wednesday, in an exciting press conference in downtown San Francisco, Apple introduced to the world some of its new, exciting and innovative products, including the new iPhone 7s. The new iPhone 7s has some new and exciting features. It has two cameras, rather than just one. In addition, the new iPhone has no earphones socket, and can only be used with Air Pods, namely – smart and cordless earphones which seamlessly set into motion the world’s most omniscient secretary, the honorable and encyclopedic Miss Siri, with but a single gentle tap on one of the Air Pods.

The Invincibility of the Jewish Spirit

Israel Crystal is the oldest man in the world. He is also a Holocaust survivor, and lives in the Israeli coastal city of Haifa. When Mr. Crystal was 13 years old, World War One was raging all over Europe, and his father was forcibly conscripted to the Russian Army. Soon thereafter, Israel’s father was killed, and Israel had to take it upon himself to support his widowed mother and his siblings, and so he never got to celebrate his own bar mitzvah.

The Invincibility of the Jewish Spirit

Israel Crystal is the oldest man in the world. He is also a Holocaust survivor, and lives in the Israeli coastal city of Haifa. When Mr. Crystal was 13 years old, World War One was raging all over Europe, and his father was forcibly conscripted to the Russian Army. Soon thereafter, Israel’s father was killed, and Israel had to take it upon himself to support his widowed mother and his siblings, and so he never got to celebrate his own bar mitzvah.

Elie Wiesel: Mentor and Teacher of generations

Elie Wiesel was a soul on fire. The spiritual intensity of his Chassidic upbringing permeated and fashioned the core of his being. Like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, Wiesel was one of those rare and exceptional individuals who became living legends during their own lifetime. 

Judaism: The Never-Dying Empire of Eternity

Paul Kennedy, a distinguished Yale scholar, wrote a fabulous book about the “Rise and Fall of Great Powers.” In this book, Kennedy’s essential argument is that superpowers tend to disintegrate because of “iron and gold”, i.e. – because of a paucity of fundamental material and economic resources and infrastructure.

Beware of words

In Judaism, words are holy and sacred. The world was created by Divine speech, teaches us the opening book of the Pentateuch; the Hebrew alphabet constitutes the spiritual DNA of the cosmos, according to the midrash.

The meaning of life

Great thinkers have important things to say about the meaning of life. For the Greek philosopher Aristotle, it was that “man is a political animal.” Aristotle basically points out that we are social beings and that we tend to congregate in groups, such as families, villages and city-states (the Greek polis). 

Defeatism: Pernicious Enemy of the Human Spirit 

My great-grandfather died of political defeatism. When his son, my grandfather, became an ardent Zionist in Nazi Berlin, and longed to make Aliyah, my great-grandfather was very displeased. "But what will you do in Palestine?" exclaimed my great-grandfather time and again: "What will you do there? Pave roads all day-long?"

Democracy: The Key to Peace in the Middle East

One of the greatest thinkers of modern times was the philosopher Immanuel Kant. In 1795, Kant argued in his work “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” for what he called “Republicanism,” which essentially means in our contemporary terms “representative democracy”, namely - a government which is duly elected by its own citizenry, in free and open elections. 

Everybody Has a Breaking Point

Golda Meir contemplated suicide in the opening days of the Yom Kippur War. Yitzhak Rabin suffered a breakdown, shortly before the Six-Day War. Menachem Begin retired as Prime Minister midterm, exclaiming , אינני יכול יותר "I can't take this any more". And Winston Churchill, the greatest statesman humanity had known in the 20th century, suffered from recurrent waves of depression which he called his "black dogs." 

Dealing with offensive comments from toxic individuals / A Torah perspective

If you’ve lived long enough, then you know that some people can be great friends when you're down and in need of help, but paradoxically, not necessarily such great friends when you're doing great and thriving. It is even sadder and more painful, when this betrayal comes from members of your own family. This is what happens to Moses in our parshah.

Losing Eternity for the World

Our parashah tells us the story of how Moses was attuned to the still small voice of Hashem, when he, Moses, would enter, alone, the Tent of Meeting. 
A tent is a very thin structure. It is easy for someone dwelling outside the tent to hear that which is said inside the tent. In this context, our sages ask how can it be that other people who were right outside the tent did not also hear G-d's words, just like Moses did? 

The Veracity of Torah

Philosopher Immanuel Kant famously spoke of the “crooked timber of humankind.” By this, Kant meant to say that we mortals are akin to a warped piece of wood, or a trunk of a tree, that could not never be completely and fully straightened out, and rendered perfectly and utterly symmetrical and harmonious. 

Acknowledging Our Mistakes: Key for Growth & Sign of Character

President Kennedy and Prime Minister Rabin are enshrined in the national consciousness of their respective nations as quasi-mythical political figures. Their untimely death left both nations bleeding and shattered. Kennedy and Rabin shared a supernal leadership quality - the ability to openly admit failure, and to take responsibility for their mistakes. 

Interior Design: A Profession We Must All Practice

Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century. In his play "No Exit," one of the characters makes a rather bleak statement about the human condition: "Hell is other people." Indeed, hell can be other people, if we opt to compulsively compete with others in a farcical and pathetic rat race for social and economic hegemony and recognition. Sadly, many people choose to live that way, and to that extent, for them - hell can indeed be other people. People who obsess about other people's homes, cars and vacations can never be fully happy, let go, and truly marvel at their own abundance, plentitude and countless blessings, because their measure of success and self-worth is external rather internal, social rather than spiritual, superficial rather than Godly and profound. 

Two Forms of Antisemitism 

Joseph dreams two dreams about his impending future greatness. In one dream, he is binding sheaves. This is a dream about material abundance, prosperity and economic success. This dream arouses hate and malice towards Joseph in his local milieu. 
Joseph’s second dream is a cosmic dream, about other-worldly entities: the sun, the moon, and the stars. This dream provokes not only loathsome enmity towards Joseph, but also jealousy towards him.

Postcard from Israel 

Mark Twain famously observed the striking dissonance between the enormity of Israel’s sheer metaphysical significance, and the minuteness of its physical scope, by saying: “Israel has more history than geography.” Being in Israel this week, I was struck once more by the astute nature of this brilliant observation. Ehud Barak likened Israel to “a villa in the jungle,” due to its being the sole democratically and economically robust force, in a region ...

Let My People Know

Our parashah on Shabbat included an-all-too-familiar dramatic phrase articulated by Moses, as he confronted the pharaoh: “Let me people go!” Let my people go was the quintessential slogan of the Jewish political condition in the 20th century. “Let my people go” out of Nazi occupied Europe, “let my people go” out of the Soviet Union, and “let my people go” out of Iran and numerous Arab countries, in which Jewish life was no longer tenable following the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Mitzvah of Gradualism

A beautiful Talmudic story teaches us about a Rabbi who traveled to a foreign city, and asked a little boy what’s the best way to enter that city. The boy told the Rabbi that there are basically two ways to enter the city, the “short-long” way, and the “long-short” way. Perplexed, the Rabbi opted for the “short-long” way. Indeed, after a short while the Rabbi got very close to the walls of the city. But alas, the walls of the city were heavily fo...

The Death of Depth

We live in a post-literary world now. We communicate in short texts, often times without words, with emojis. Therefore, when a literary giant dies, as Amos Oz did last week, we feel even more diminished by their passing. Because we know that today’s world no longer produces individuals whose chief passion and talent in life is the glowing pathos of the written word, and the verbal virtuosity of the spoken word. 

The Gift of Poetry: A Torah Perspective

In 1947, when the UN voted for the establishment of a Jewish State in the land of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Jews took to the streets in jubilation and song. When President Kennedy wanted to capture the magnificence and sublimity of the moment during his inaugural address in 1961, he invited poet Robert Frost, to articulate the grandeur and historicity of the moment, by reciting poetry and song. And when the first human landed...

The Day Khomeini Came Home

Today, forty years ago, on 2/1/1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini arrived back in Teheran, after a decade and a half of political exile in France. 
Consequently, more than 80% of the Persian-Jewish community left the country that was once its cultural and geographical home for more than two millennia. 

Waiting for a New Cyrus 

This week, 40 years ago, on 2/18/1979, the last remaining Israeli diplomats left Iran on a Pan Am flight to Germany. Their departure marked the end of a true alliance between Israel and Iran. In the Bible, the first person who is called mashiach (messiah) is Cyrus the Persian emperor (in the book of Isaiah). The concept of the messiah in ancient times referred to a political redeemer. Indeed, it was Cyrus who politically redeemed our people from t...

Eternity in Time

This Shabbat coincides with the 28th day of the omer. During the omer counting, we count up 49 days from political freedom (Passover), to spiritual freedom (the holiday of Shavuot, and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai). Every day of the omer counting, is accompanied by a unique spiritual frequency, a Kabbalistic formula comprising of two divine attributes. 

True Leadership

Our parshah states that Moses sent emissaries to a foreign king, “on behalf of Israel” (Numbers 21:21). According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, this teaches us that true and authentic leaders always conduct themselves “on behalf of the people.” Many of us today, feel that there is a chronic paucity of great leadership in the world, that many nations are led today by politicians rather than by statesmen. This vacuum of leadership stems from the fact that we har...

The Burning of the Norte Dame: A Jewish Spiritual Perspective 

I used to live at the very heart of the city of Paris, a mere two-minute walk from the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was partially burnt earlier this week. Like many people, I was saddened to see this monumental structure on fire. Reflecting upon this architectural calamity, a Talmudic story came to mind. In this story, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to whom our tradition attributes the authorship of the book of Zohar, s...

Moses & His Children

In our parshah, the Torah states: “These are the descendants of Moses and Aaron.” But lo and behold, the parshah then goes on to only mention Aaron’s children, and not a word about Moses’ children. What can we learn about the fact that the Torah has nothing meaningful to tell us about Moses’ children, except that their names were Eliezer and Gershom?

Immigration : A Jewish Spiritual Perspective

We Jews are a nation of immigrants. Abraham and Sarah were immigrants. Jacob and his descendants were immigrants. We entered the Land of Israel under Joshua’s leadership as immigrants. For millennia, we Jews were the world’s first global people. Dehumanized and humiliated, expelled and dispossessed, we ceaselessly and desperately knocked on dozens of national doors, begging to be let in. We entered the walls of these countries, som...

Hating Hate

Albert Einstein was one of the greatest scientific minds in history. He was also endowed with a broad philosophical outlook on the entirety of being, which propelled him to contemplate and ponder the sheer enigma and wonderment of existence, and articulate poetic statements about the underlying harmony and structure of the cosmos. Here are three of my favorites Einstein quotes (there are many others as well).

Defeating Defeatism

President Kennedy’s inaugural address is considered to this day to be one of the greatest speeches in the history of American politics. Kennedy did not write this speech all by himself. He was aided by his Jewish speechwriter Ted Sorensen. In his speech, the President spoke about all the great challenges which await not only America, but the entire human race, for the foreseeable future, and for the ensuing decades. Kennedy quoted from the book of Isaiah a verse which we Jews read on Yom Kippur, he spoke about defeating political tyranny, alleviating poverty, eradicating diseases, and infusing our nation with a spirit of altruism and renewal.

It’s Up To You

Our parshah starts with a text which also appears in the Passover Haggadah, and which we read during the Seder night.
In this text, we find a peculiar and twofold statement in the Hebrew, which reads: “Arami oved avi.”

It's All About Your Family

Rosh Hashanah, according to the liturgy and the Talmud, is supposed to be, inter alia, about creation writ large, and the creation of humanity in particular. However, the Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah discuss family rupture, rather than creation. 

The Fast of Gedaliah: A Warning from History

Many Jews don’t know that the day following Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish minor fast day. A minor fast day is roughly from sunrise to sunset. The fast day for the day after Rosh Hashanah is named after Gedaliah, the Jewish governor of Israel during the time of the Babylonian exile.

My Message for Yom Kippur

Yesterday, 46 years ago, Israel almost perished. During the opening hours and days of the Yom Kippur War, it wasn’t clear at all whether Israel would actually survive the hostile onslaught waged against it by Egypt and Syria. Guilt-ridden for the army being so ill-prepared for the existential campaign, Prime Minister Golda Meir actually contemplated suicide during the opening days of the war, as she later recounted in her memoirs. 

After Yom Kippur

The best way I can describe our communal experience during Yom Kippur, is by resorting to the sublime poetry of the 19th century English poet William Blake, who reminds us that it is indeed possible to behold “Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour.”