Friday, January 23, 2009

Weekly E*Torah by Rabbi Avrohom Altein

How to Cut Your Losses
This Shabbat's Sidra describes how the enslavement of the Jewish Nation in Egypt began to crumble with the Ten Plagues. The first of these plagues was Blood; the waters of the Nile River changed to blood.

There most certainly was a "Plan of Action", a system and reasoning behind the order in which these ten plagues occurred. What why it that Blood was the very first plague?

Egypt was the most powerful world power at that time. Its empire and influence extended over the entire civilized world. The source of Egyptian wealth and prosperity was the Nile River. Each year the Nile overflowed into the Egyptian Delta bringing rich fertile soil. The Egyptian response to this was to treat the Nile River as a deity; they bowed to the river and worshipped it. And they imposed cruel slavery on the Jews, forcing them to become a peg in the wheel of the Egyptian economy.

The first plague was to demonstrate that the supreme power was not the economic wealth of the Nile. The supreme power is that of G-d, who gives life to all and desires what is just and kind. So the Nile River was transformed to a curse rather than a blessing, to convey this very important lesson.

Why though was the Nile changed to blood? Chassidic Philosophy explains this beautifully:

A nation in exile loses part of its identity. The spiritual meaning of Exile is assimilation and the beginning of assimilation is apathy. Jewish youth that were taught Hebrew language and culture but never experienced the excitement of learning Torah with passion and love, will be bored and apathetic about Jewish issues. And that cold indifference breeds assimilation.

Water is a coolant, so water is the symbol of being cool and indifferent. Blood is the symbol of life and warmth. That is why the first step towards leading the Jews out of exile, was to transform the cold waters of the Nile into a river of blood and to replace cold apathy with life and warmth.

A Jew that knows nothing about the beauty of Jewish life will give it all up for nothing, because he thinks that he has nothing to lose. But when Jewish life is imbued with passion, warmth and life, it grows ever stronger and stronger.

Weekly Smile
Nothing to Lose
Economic times were bad and becoming worse by the day. Two storekeepers met and shared their woes. One said that people are short on cash so they buy on credit and leave the store with no cash. He decided to offer a discount to those who pay upfront.

The other storekeeper replied, "My system is exactly the opposite. Those who buy on credit get a discount. In fact, I let them buy for free."

"Why in the world would you do that?" asked the first storekeeper. "Simple," said his friend. "Most people never pay what they owe. By discounting the price and charging them nothing, I cut my losses to nothing!"

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Question of the week - Rabbi Moss

Question of the Week:

Can you tell me why G-d gave me a mental illness? Why has he made me suffer? I am not a bad person.


Every soul journeys down into this world with two suitcases. One is full of the challenges the soul has to face during its lifetime. The other is full of the talents and strengths necessary to withstand those challenges. The first suitcase is opened for you; the second you have to open yourself.

Your soul's challenge is mental illness. Your mission is to use your talents to turn the pain and frustration into a positive force.

Because of your openness and willingness to share your experiences, you can be an inspiration to others who have mental illnesses. You can bring hope and light to those who are not as strong as you, by showing them just how much they can achieve if they focus on their abilities.

You can also bring understanding and insight to those who have not themselves experienced the pain of mental illness. I for one have learnt an invaluable lesson from speaking to you.

Do you remember our conversation, when I asked you what was the hardest thing about having a mental illness? You said it was the silence; when people discover that you suffer from mental illness, they don't know what to say, and the conversation comes to an abrupt and awkward end.

So I asked you, What would you like them to say? Your answer amazed me.

You said, "I wish they would ask me questions about my illness. I wish they would show an interest to understand what I am going through. I wish they would give me the chance to share what I am experiencing, rather than let me suffer alone."

I'm sure not everyone is as willing to talk as you are, but I suspect that for many the stigma of mental illness hurts more than anything else. Thank you for letting me see it from your perspective. I promise to pass on the lesson.

G-d has presented your soul with a challenge, but He has also given you a bright and warm personality, and a strength of character that can stand up to the challenges you face. This is a gift that I hope you will share with the world.

Good Shabbos.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Worldwide Synchronized Lecture

Since this year is a Hakhel year, a year when the Jewish people traditionally gathered to hear inspirational words of Torah from the Jewish King in the holy Temple, the Chabad Jewish Learning Institute has planned for a series of lectures presented by leading Jewish scholars throughout the course of the year. These assemblies will take place simultaneously around the world via web-casts in an unprecedented display of Global Unity.

The first web-cast will be addressed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, on Sunday, January 25 at 1:30pm at the Fort Garry Hotel.
You can register online at or send us an email at

Friday, January 16, 2009

Weekly E*Torah by Rabbi Avrohom Altein

It's All in the Name
This Shabbat we begin reading Exodus, the second book of the Torah. The Hebrew name of Exodus is Shemot (Names). The title "Names" is from the opening words of Exodus. It begins with the words "These were the names of the Jews that came to Egypt." The Talmudic sages point out that the Torah had already listed their names previously in Genesis, when it first described how the Jews left the Land of Israel and came to Egypt. The theme of Exodus is the redemption from Egypt, so why does the Torah repeat here the names of those that had earlier descended to Egypt?

The rabbis explain that the Torah makes a point that the Jews left Egypt with the very same type of names that they had when they had arrived in Egypt some 210 years earlier. Although Egypt was a powerful civilization with a highly developed culture, the Jews did not assimilate and lose their Jewish identity; they still referred to themselves with their Hebrew names.

What helped protect Jews from assimilating was the fact that they did not change their Hebrew names to names that would resonate better with their Egyptian neighbors. A name is a powerful statement of what a person is. When a person uses his/her Jewish name in their daily business affairs it demonstrates that the person is comfortable and proud of his or her Jewish identity.

According to Jewish tradition, the Jewish name is a channel to the soul. The parents are gifted with prophetic insight when they select a name for their child, so that the Jewish name is a perfect match for their child's soul. No one else, not even grandparents or friends, should meddle with the parent's choice of an appropriate Hebrew name for their child.

We usually select a name of either a parent or grandparent, to perpetuate their memory or the name of a righteous Jew, so that the child will be imbued with the qualities of his namesake. We are careful not to name a child after a decadent person or one who led a tragic life, because the name imparts the character of the namesake on the child.

A boy receives his Jewish name at his circumcision. A girl receives her Jewish name as soon as possible after her birth, during the reading of the Torah in synagogue on Mondays, Thursday or Shabbat.

The important lesson of Shemot is the to use our Jewish names with comfort and pride. It will keep us proud of our Jewish heritage.

Weekly Smile
Many East-European Jews shortened and modified their Jewish names when they arrived in North America. They were afraid of anti-Semitism. But it really didn't do the trick. The only name that really fits the Jew is his real Jewish name.

There is a famous story of an elderly East-European Jew named Sean Fergusson. When asked, "what kind of a Jewish name is that?" He explained the story behind the name.

When leaving the old country, people prompted him to identify himself with an English-sounding name so that he would fit into North-American life. But when he arrived at immigration and they asked him what was his name, this Yiddish-speaking Jew was unable to remember. He said "Shoyn Fargessen!" (-Already, I've forgotten! -in Yiddish). And that became his name!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Weekly E*Torah by Rabbi A. Altein

Parshas Vayechi

This Shabbat's Torah Reading is called VaYechi, for life. Interestingly, the entire reading is about Jacob's death and funeral. It seems strange that the story of his death would be named "life."

Herein lies a beautiful lesson. Ordinary life is very temporary; it is not real because it passes us by liked a fleeting dream. True life is to live eternally and that we can achieve only by connecting our soul to eternal G-d.

After Jacob died and his children continued to live as loyal Jews, that was the indication that his life was to endure even after his physical death, and that is when his life became real. That's why the portion is called VaYechi, "he lived."

During the current crisis in Israel, every Jewish heart pounds with concern for the lives and welfare of our fellow Jews and for the safety and success of the young and courageous young men and women of the Israeli Army. It is obvious that we cannot rely on the world around us to stand up for Jewish lives. The hatred of Jews in society comes clearly through the thin guise of upside-down morality and crocodile tears for the defeat of Hamas.

It is important to recognize that Jews can only rely on each other and that primarily we need to reach out to G-d and pray for Divine intervention and assistance.

Our sages tell us that when Jews observe two specific Mitzvot, they are blessed with divine protection and Jewish soldiers are empowered with an extra degree of divine assistance.

One of these Mitzvot is donning Tefillin. The Tefillin contain passages of the Torah that testify to the unique bond between G-d and Israel. When we place these passages on our arm and head, they imbue our head with divine insight and the arms of the soldiers of Israel with the strength to overcome our mortal enemies.

The other Mitzvah is Shabbat Candles. The glow of the candles on the Shabbat table creates an atmosphere of serenity and peace that gives sanctity to a Jewish home. In a larger sense, the Mitzvah of lighting the Shabbat candles brings peace and serenity to the national "home" of the Jewish People--to Israel.

In an expression of tangible solidarity with the Israel, each of us should resolve to do these Mitzvot during the coming days. Every Jewish man should don Tefillin on the arm and head. It could be done anytime between daybreak to sunset. Recite the Shema Yisrael (it will only take three minutes of your time) before removing the Tefillin.

Every Jewish woman should light Shabbat Candles in her home this Friday night, by 4:30 pm. The brightness and warmth of the Shabbat that will fill Jewish homes will spread to our fellow Jews in Israel and give them a brighter and more peaceful future.

Every Mitzvah counts. Together, we can change the world, one Mitzvah at a time!

European Justice

It happened in France. A young man saw a pit bull attacking a toddler. He killed the pit bull and saved the child's life. Reporters swarmed around the hero and told him that tomorrow's headline will be: "Brave Frenchman Saves Little Girl from Vicious Dog!"

So the fellow says, "But I'm not a Frenchman, I'm a Jew from Israel."

The next day's headlines proclaimed: "Vicious Israeli Massacres Little Girl's Dog!"

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Question of the week - Rabbi Moss

Question of the Week:
If I ever want to find a wife, I think I have to leave town. I know all the Jewish girls here from school days, and none of them interest me. I don't go to synagogue to meet people, because I was never very into Judaism. But I do go to parties, and see the same old faces every time. What can I do if I already know everyone?

You remind me of the guy who was walking down the street and saw a familiar face. "You're Mark, aren't you? Remember me? We went to kindergarten together!"

"I don't know you," was the response.

"Listen, I haven't seen you in thirty years, but you look exactly the same. Are you sure you're not Mark?"

"My name isn't Mark."

He couldn't believe someone could look so much like Mark but not be Mark. Then it dawned on him. If that was Mark, he would have grown up too...

People change. The fact that you knew someone ten years ago has little relevance to today. You are not the same person today as you were when you were sixteen, and you wouldn't appreciate people seeing you now as you were then. Well, everyone else has grown up too.

And you can't always rely on your views from back then either. As you develop, you may find the friends of your youth have little in common with you, while you may have become more aligned with the very people you used to avoid. The things that excited you ten years ago are not the things that still excite you now. Otherwise we would all be firemen and ballerinas.

Just as we mature, so must our view of the world around us. We have to be ready to drop outdated opinions, and take a fresh look around us.

Another example of this is our view of Judaism. There are many people who hold on to a negative view of Judaism developed in their youth. This may have been based on bad experiences - a boring Hebrew teacher, a hypocritical rabbi, or a mean religious relative. Or we may simply have not enjoyed studying Torah and going to shule, it just didn't grab us, or it felt like a burden forced upon us by our parents when other kids were having fun. So at some point we opted out of Jewish life. That may have seemed like the right reaction at the time. But that doesn't mean it is still right.

As a mature person, we can re-engage with Judaism from a whole new angle. We can come to realise that bad experiences of the past can be left in the past, and individuals don't necessarily represent the whole. What seemed irrelevant and uninteresting then may be inspiring and uplifting now. The view of Judaism we developed at age twelve is probably due for a review. As a mature person, we may realise there really is something there for us.

So when you see an old face, don't forget that they grew up too. Meet them as the person they are now, not the way you remember them. And approach Judaism in the same way. You can revisit it, like an old acquaintance that you never really appreciated. Who knows, you might just fall in love.

Good Shabbos,

Stand with Israel

Put on Tefillin for the IDF Soldiers!

S'derot under attack

War in Gaza

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Community Shabbat Dinner

Friday, January 2, 2009

Weekly E*Torah - Parshas Vayigash

By Rabbi Avrohom Altein

An Upside-Down World

This coming Tuesday will be a Fast Day. On this day (10th of Teves) the army of Babylon laid siege around the city of Jerusalem. This led to the eventual capture of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of Jews into Exile. We mourn the long chain of Jewish suffering through so many generations and we pray for the complete and Final Redemption.

There is a famous Yiddish dictum that when a sick person realizes that he is sick, that itself is half the cure. When we recognize that something is wrong, we will seek out a solution. A sick person will visit a physician. But when a sick person deludes himself into thinking all is well, he is in serious trouble.
It is most important that we Jews recognize that we live in a state of Exile and that this is not a healthy situation, not the kind of life that Jews were meant to live.

The Torah intended that Jews would be "a light to the nations," a model and inspiration of spirituality and ethics to the entire world. Jews were to all live in Israel, the Holy Land, and the Torah would be their guidebook in setting their direction in life.

We can help make this noble goal a step closer by implementing some changes to our own lifestyle. That means striving to keep more Mitzvot, study more Torah and feel proud to be Jewish. Let the ethics of our Torah be our yardstick for what is right or wrong. We should not be seeking the approval of the outside world for what we do, because when it comes to Jews, the world's values are twisted and warped.

One has to only look at the sorry state and upside-down values of the world that we live in, to realize that it is not healthy. Israel has suffered eight long years an unending barrage of missiles aimed at innocent men, women and children. The terrorists openly state that they consider every living Jew their enemy and would kill us all.

During the many years that Israel was quiet about the daily threat to Jewish lives, there was not a single protest by world leaders against the Hamas onslaught. But the moment that the Israeli army rose to defend Jewish lives, the world leaders and media are suddenly shocked by the "disproportionate amount of force."

One has to be quite a slow thinker not to recognize that we are in a deep Exile. The Redemption must begin from within, from Jews standing up for themselves with pride and for what Judaism represents.

Weekly Smile
Justice for Jews

During the reign of the Russian Czars, Jews were subject to a perverted system of justice. Once, as a Jewish man walked the street, an anti-Semite threw a rock at his head. The Jew ducked just in time and instead of hitting the Jew, the rock smashed a store window.

The court fined the Jew and ordered him to pay for the broken window. It was the Jew's fault that the window broke because if he had not ducked the window would be whole.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

How do I explain the war in Gaza?

Question of the Week:

I am the only Jew in my office so I face a daily barrage of questions about Israel's actions in Gaza. I don't know who appointed me as Israel's spokesman and I am not armed with the answers. Can you help?


At times like this, each one of us becomes an ambassador for Israel. Even if you don't agree with everything Israel does, any decent person must stand up for Israel's right to self-defense.

We can leave the military and political issues to the experts, but we should all be clear on the moral questions raised by this war. Let's look at a few of the most commonly asked questions.

Q: How can Israel justify killing civilians if their intent is to crush Hamas?

A: The death of innocents is a tragic inevitability of war. Our hearts go out to all those caught in the middle. The sad fact is that the Palestinian people are being held hostage by Hamas. Just as it is clear that Hamas is morally culpable for any harm done to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli hostage that they hold, so too are they culpable for the fate of Palestinian innocents amongst whom they hide. A civilian who is killed while being used by a terrorist as a human shield is a victim of the terrorist, not the Israeli army, who does not target innocent civilians.

Q: Isn't Israel's response a bit disproportionate?

A: If Israel were merely taking revenge, then it would need to be proportionate. But Israel is waging a defensive war. Since when is war proportionate? In war, you don't measure your response to the enemy by what they have done to you in the past, but rather by what needs to be done to stop them attacking in the future. Israel must destroy Hamas' capability to continue shooting rockets at Israeli cities. Israel's actions are proportionate to the present and future threat, not just the damage done in the past.

Q: Doesn't Israel understand that they are just creating more terrorists? The anger and fury at Israel as a result of bombing Gaza will only make more people want to join Hamas.

A: Feelings of frustration, anger, fear and rage do not make you into a terrorist. A culture of death and an education of hate does. Israel doesn't need to do anything to create terrorists - Islamic extremism does that - but Israel must act to destroy those who threaten its people.

Q: Hamas indeed has a militant wing, but it also does a lot of good. They are responsible for social programs, educational projects and humanitarian work in Gaza. By destroying Hamas, Israel also destroys all the good they do. Isn't that demonising a group that is not all bad?

A: If a serial killer also happens to volunteer for his local hospital, has donated money to an orphanage, and looks after his ailing grandmother, he is still a serial killer, and should be treated as such. The danger he poses far outweighs the concern for any good he may do.

Q: By using violence, how is Israel any better than its terrorist enemies?

A: That is as ridiculous as saying that a woman who fights off an attacker is no better than her attacker. Israel would not touch Hamas if Hamas would stop sending rockets and suicide bombers into Israel. Israel seeks to live in peace with its neighbours; Hamas and its allies seek to destroy Israel, no matter what Israel does.

For Hamas, war is holy. For Israel, war can never be holy. War may be necessary, like when your citizens are being attacked unprovoked; war may be moral, like when innocent lives are being threatened; but even then, war is never holy.

There is a world of difference between a moral war and a holy war. A moral soldier fights reluctantly, while holy warriors glory in the fight. A moral soldier is burdened by the obligation, while holy warriors delight in the pain inflicted on the enemy. A moral soldier fights when there is no other option; a holy warrior seeks violence as a way of life. A moral soldier takes measures to limit innocent casualties; a holy warrior seeks to maximise them.

A holy warrior fears times of peace, because then he has no purpose. A moral soldier dreams of a time when peace will reign. Then, the Israel Defense Force will be made joyously redundant, as "one nation will not lift a sword against another nation, and they will no longer learn to wage war".