Archive | Rabbi Yogi

Freedom can be felt even in midst of slavery

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Pesach sure gives slavery a bad rap. After all, the Seder’s dominant theme is that of the Israelites moving away from slavery and toward a life of freedom. And the rituals of the night serve to accentuate the motif of freedom: The leaning as free men would do, the four cups of wine (the drink of the wealthy and privileged), the custom to decorate the Seder table with one’s finest vessels, the lavish meal and the obligation to see oneself as having left the bondage of Egypt (Sephardim going so far as to physically re-enact the Exodus in the midst of their Seder!). All of this and more turn the Seder night into one big ol’ gratitude-fest — “Thank you Lord for redeeming us from such a dreadful fate! Hallelujah!”
God forbid for myself or anyone else to dismiss or even downplay the depressive plight of the enslaved! Human history has shed its light on the evil that is slavery and the hell that marks its victims. And yet, I sometimes worry that a person could leave the Seder with the wrong impression: that a life has no worth, no value or purpose unless one is free. A “Give me liberty or give me death” kind of sensibility that nips at the hearts of participants around the Seder table. And that’s a shame.
For, unwittingly as it may be, such attitudes diminish the meaning of the existences of the millions upon millions of people who have lived throughout human history as enslaved peoples, many never getting close enough to even sniff the fresh air of freedom. Not to mention the many long portions of Jewish history itself riddled with slavery or slavery-like persecution in exile! Are we to argue that those stretches of Jewish history served as mere layovers toward a brighter national future? How sad, indeed, it would be if life’s meaning could so easily be stripped away from humanity at the hands of history’s oppressors!
And yet many believe just that. People like Anthony Ray Hinton, who came to believe that the powers that be could steal his life and reason-to-be away from him. He was a poor black man convicted by a jury of all white Southerners of murdering two fast-food managers and attempting to murder a third who thankfully survived a gunshot to the head, but sadly pointed out Hinton from a police lineup as the shooter (Hinton had actually been checked in at his job, surrounded by co-workers at the time of the attempted murder, but his ill-equipped court-appointed lawyer never bothered to put his co-workers on the stand).
Hinton was enraged. And rightly so. He was an innocent man that the state wanted to kill in order to move on from these grisly crimes. There was no physical evidence linking Hinton to the murders, but a shoddy ballistics report claiming that the bullets found at the crime scenes matched Anthony’s mother’s gun (almost three decades later this report would be debunked by national ballistics experts). And now, that which was left of his life had been reduced to a long waiting game for a date with the electric chair located just 40 feet from his holding cell. And what great meaning could there be in that? There were no great choices one could make on death row, no family one could grow or meaningful work to engage in. Anthony Hinton lived with these pervading thoughts for the first three years of what would become an almost 30-year stint in isolation on Alabama’s death row.
But one particularly gloomy night changed everything for the young convict. It was common at nighttime to hear sounds of crying and moaning on The Row. You learned to tune it out. But tonight was different. It was a soul-piercing cry, and it went on and on and on.
Anthony recalls his thoughts from that night. Thoughts that would alter his existence for the rest of his time in lockup.
“I thought again about all the choices I didn’t have and about freedom, and then the man stopped crying and there was a silence that was louder than any noise I’d ever heard. What if this man killed himself tonight and I did nothing? Wouldn’t that be a choice?
“I was on death row not by my own choice, but I had made the choice to spend the last three years thinking about killing McGregor [the state’s prosecutor] and thinking about killing myself. Despair was a choice. Hatred was a choice. Anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. I may not have had as many as Lester [Anthony’s best friend from the outside] had, but I still had some choices. I could choose to give up or to hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice. Compassion was a choice.
“‘Hey!’ I walked up to my cell door and yelled toward the crying man. ‘Are you all right over there?’”
These were the first words that Anthony had uttered since he had entered death row three years prior. He had been silently protesting the entirety of it all, and refused to speak to anyone but the few outsiders who came to visit him on visiting day. But now he realized his words could also be used for the good.
It turned out that the crying inmate had recently received word that his mother had died, and Anthony’s words of care and concern opened the door for the other inmate to share his pain with another and heal in the process.
Anthony comforted the man:
“I’m sorry you lost your mom, but man, you got to look at this a different way. Now you have someone in heaven who’s going to argue your case before God.”
And then “the most amazing thing happened. On a dark night, in what must surely be the most desolate and dehumanizing place on earth, a man laughed. A real laugh. And with that laughter, I realized that the State of Alabama could steal my future and my freedom, but they couldn’t steal my soul or my humanity. And they most certainly couldn’t steal my sense of humor (“The Sun Does Shine,” pp. 115-118).”

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Heroic figures of our past are worth imitating

Posted on 21 March 2019 by admin

We got the Torah on Shavuot, but you won’t find any 9-year-olds dressed up as Moses, holding up cut-out-cardboard Ten Commandments, anywhere in synagogue over that holiday. Not many Maccabee look-alike contests over Hanukkah either.
But on Purim, we’ve got Queen Esthers and Mordechais to spare! These royal Jewish personages seem to be everywhere and anywhere over the holiday! I would venture to say that the No. 1 choice of Purim dress-up for 5-year-old girls is Queen Esther, and similarly it’s Mordechai for the boys. Sure, you’ve got one or two wise-guy Hamans in the crowd, but that shtick doesn’t usually start up until the teenage years, when that’s the least of parents’ concerns concerning teenage rebellion.
And so, it’s only appropriate on the holiday that recognizes and celebrates its ancient Jewish heroes like no other, to focus on the miracle that is great Jewish personages throughout our history.
I happened to be in the Holy Land just months after the venerated giant of mussar (the study of Jewish ethics and character development), Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt’’l, passed away. The year was 2005 and I was engaged in one of my favorite practices of Jerusalem life, book hunting. Meah Shearim in particular is lined with tens of large and small sefarim (Jewish books) shops, and I always spend as many hours as I can find perusing up and down the aisles for new and ancient treasures.
It just so happened that I passed by a certain store that had a table outside on the sidewalk, showcasing its newest additions, and a small, paperback book caught my eye. In honor of the shloshim (the 30-day period of mourning after death), the students of Rabbi Wolbe zt’’l had collected and published a small book of letters that their rebbe had written to individuals, addressing all sorts of questions and concerns that people presented him. I had to buy it!
Unfortunately, the book sat on my shelves for years, largely untouched, until just last year when I decided to go through the letters one by one. It turned out to be a real treasure. There were Torah insights on just about every page, with one pearl of wisdom in particular resonating with me above them all — an insight that highlights the uniqueness of man, and more particularly the singular majesty of the spiritually elevated man.
Rabbi Wolbe was perplexed as to why the Shemoneh Esrei (otherwise known as the Amidah — literally, “the Standing Prayer”), the holiest and most often recited of Jewish prayers, begins its praise of God with the reductive words, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob,” when it could have used broader, seemingly more glorifying terminology like, “Creator of Heaven and Earth,” “Redeemer From Egypt” or “Giver of the Torah.”
The answer, according to Rabbi Wolbe zt’’l, is that the greatest praise that we can offer the Almighty is that He created physical creatures of flesh and blood who nonetheless might achieve Godly natures. People like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who educated the world about the nature of the divine and were elevated themselves to such a lofty degree that the King of kings Himself felt it appropriate to attach His holy name to theirs (“God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob”). Who would think that you and I have the potential within us to become the greatest miracles of all! (See Igrot U’Ketavim Mimaran Rabeinu Ha’Mashgiach, Letter 5: Bircat Avot, for greater detail.)
Besides the fun and games associated with dressing up on Purim, it’s worth considering how special, and indeed unique, it is, that we as a people educate our children that the people they ought most to imitate and emulate aren’t today’s top athletes or most famous movie stars, but the holy and heroic figures of our Jewish past. People like the saintly Mordechai and the righteous Esther. Within the merriment of the day, and in the childlike endeavor of dress-up, we are indeed imparting a most lofty lesson to the next generation: that human beings can become greater than our biological limitations might imply — that we have the potential to become vessels of the divine, the greatest miracle in all of Creation!

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Putting possessions in spiritual perspective

Posted on 21 February 2019 by admin

“One who acquires more possessions acquires more worry (Pirkei Avot 2:8).”
This intuitive notion serves as a powerful check on one of the most powerful of human drives: the drive to amass wealth and assets. I must have heard, learned and taught this famous dictum of Hillel a hundred times or more in the past decade alone. Suffice it to say that our generation, a generation blessed with more wealth and opportunity than perhaps any generation, needs Hillel’s guidance more than ever. And yet, as I’ve only recently learned, it’s a whole other thing to experience the wisdom of a Torah teaching in one’s own life.
When my children were younger, money wasn’t important to me. Sure, I needed funds to to pay the rent and utilities for the modest apartment we lived in, and to buy groceries, Pampers and clothing for my growing family. But, as long as we had enough to provide those basic needs, I was fully content.
Then, my family’s expenses grew, considerably so.
Five children in prekindergarten and up meant five tuition bills to Jewish day school and summer camp. These wonderful investments in our children’s future, nonetheless carried lofty price tags. Throw in extracurricular and weekend activities,mix in birthday parties and bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Don’t forget to add in memorable family vacations, and yearly two-way trips for seven people to visit Bubbe and Zayde in Baltimore, and Saba and Savta in Atlanta. Still, our budget was swelling and, once again, I was tolerant of, if not fully satisfied with, our fiscal well-being.
But my thoughts turned to a costly future. A 16-year-old daughter meant car insurance, a new vehicle and the other expenses that come with a teenager. My mind wandered to upcoming college tuition and nuptials which, with God’s help, wouldn’t be too far off, and savings put aside for future grandchildren. Then there was the question of our own retirement.
The seemingly endless dollar signs in my brain made my head spin and my stomach weak. Making monthly ends meet no longer seemed enough. With my salary largely set, thoughts of potential investments in the stock market, into a business or real estate ventures seemed necessary to cover future expenses.
I studied the ins and outs of a particular investment for six months, and jumped in with a great deal of hope. Things went largely as planned, and I felt we had invested in something that would hopefully bear fruit down the road. What I didn’t expect to find was my stomach turned like a wrench, my mind returning over and over to my investment, and my sleep disturbed. Had I gotten the best deal? Run the numbers correctly? Chosen correctly and properly analyzed the future of the investment? Would the investment perform well long term? What were the knowns and the unknowns of the transaction? Should I buy or sell? The list went on and on, and with it, much of the peace and quiet in my mind.
I had run the numbers multiple times and received the input and advice of experts in the field, yet it seemingly wasn’t enough for me. It was as if my newly acquired assets had, in fact, acquired me. I walked around with Hillel’s dictum in my mind’s eye; the more possessions one had, the more one had to worry about. I couldn’t help but jealously look back at my earlier, simpler and more peaceful days, and relate to the spirit of Solomon’s wise quip: “The sleep of the laborer is sweet, whether he eat little or much, but the satiety of the rich does not allow him to sleep (Kohelet 5:11).”
However, unloading my investments meant a return to the fear that accompanied the prospect of an unprepared future. But how to overcome the associated nervousness and angst? Perhaps Hillel’s teaching meant that ownership and worry were inextricably linked, that one of the inevitable costs of possessions is worry itself. Would life then become nothing more than a choice between the lesser of two evils?
I turned to God and asked Him to take over. As I did so, feelings of relief slowly came to me. Although it didn’t happen immediately, I eventually reached a point of internal peace. My investments returned to their rightful place, the back of my mind. And my focus returned to what really mattered, and the reason I was doing all of this in the first place: my family.
Perhaps this is what Hillel taught us all along with his dictum. If you see the possessions you’ve acquired as yours alone, then you alone must bear the burden of concern for those assets. However, if you don’t see yourself as the “true” owner, that you are but a custodian of God’s possessions, then God can, and will, share in the burden of possession. With such an emotionally healthy outlook we can share in the promise of King David when he said, “Cast your burden upon Hashem, and He will bear you (Tehillim 55:23).”
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at
yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Recognizing our true power to transform

Posted on 06 February 2019 by admin

Ever wonder how they train baby elephants in the circus? It’s actually quite fascinating, and more than a little sad. While they are still young calves, trainers attach a strong rope around their necks and attach the rope to a secure post. The young calf inevitably tries to walk away and is stopped time and time again by the rope. Day after day the scene repeats itself, with the feisty calf trying with all its might to get away and the sturdy rope holding it in place. Eventually the calf realizes that escape from the rope’s grasp is futile and it stops resisting, choosing instead to stand docile and remain in its place. It is for this reason that you might visit a circus one day and find a seven-ton, fully grown elephant standing perfectly still with a rope tied around its neck that is attached to nothing. The trained elephant, you see, comes to associate the rope itself with forced confinement and submits to its “powers.” Little does it know that even a secured rope would be no match for a beast of its current size!
In this vein, we might approach a perplexing sentiment that the Jewish people express at the Sea of Reeds. With the sea on one hand and the approaching Egyptian army on the other, the Jews declare rhetorically, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the thing [about] which we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, Leave us alone, and we will serve the Egyptians, because we would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert (Shemot 14:11-12).” One can imagine the fear of an oncoming army with no place for retreat, but the Jewish people were 600,000 strong (those of military age alone: ibid,12:13), and armed (13:18), whereas the oncoming Egyptian army consisted of a paltry 600-plus chariots and their accompanying officers (14:7)! Why were the Jews so certain of their impending defeat?
Sure, it’s true that the newly exiled Jewish people were not learned in the ways of war like the Egyptian army, but their sheer numerical advantage alone should have given them a legitimate hope of victory at the very least! Nonetheless, God Himself seems to agree with the people’s dire assessment of the situation when He assures them, only a few verses later, that “The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent.” God, it seems, knew that without divine assistance, an Egyptian victory was a foregone conclusion.
I doubt the famed Spanish Bible commentator Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) had ever heard of the circus animal training devices detailed above, but in much the same way, he describes the long-since shackled mentality of the Jews of the Exodus. These Jews, he explains, had long served the Egyptians and habituated themselves to bearing the brunt of their heavy yoke. “Their spirits were lowly,” the Ibn Ezra writes. “How could they now fight their masters?” If he had had the language, perhaps the Ibn Ezra would have described the Jews at the sea as having a “slave mentality.” Or, perhaps he would have categorized them as having an “inferiority complex,” a term coined hundreds of years later by noted Viennese psychotherapist Alfred Adler (1870-1937).
Like the adult elephants held captive by their erroneous mental associations of the rope around their necks, the Jewish people were held captive by their erroneous associations with the Egyptians. Our history would have looked pretty different (no splitting of the sea!?), but perhaps God might not have needed to miraculously intervene on our ancestors’ behalf had they been able to properly assess their own newfound might and the true power of the limited Egyptian army heading their way.
The ancient Israelites are far from alone in bearing improper self-evaluations and inaccurate foreign associations. How often do we ourselves fall into this same psychological trap in our lives? We all struggle with deficiencies in character, relationships and values that we know we ought to change but have found difficult to overcome and transform over the years. At a certain point, we may submit to “reality” and give up the fight. In our minds we have a rope around our necks, and it seems futile to deny its control over us. Sure, we may remain as growth-minded individuals, but we move on to tackle easier, more attainable personal battles.
Once in a while, though, we ought to take stock of how much we have grown over the years. We ought to take a fresh look at ourselves in the mirror. Are we still small calves, or are we seven-ton elephants? Sure, that rope was tough to wrangle out of when we were younger, less spiritually and emotionally advanced individuals, but we’re different now! We’re more capable and powerful at this advanced point in our lives. If we could only see who we really are, right here and now, we might very well be able to pull ourselves out of holes that we’ve been stuck in for years and convinced we’d be stuck in forever. But, to do this, we need to break free from our erroneous beliefs that certain problematic areas of our lives are ropes that hold us in place and cannot be removed or broken free from. True freedom could be ours if we could just recognize how powerful we really are, how much we have grown over the years. What we weren’t capable of conquering and accomplishing in years past might be very much in our grasp today.
This question assumes our verse to be describing the entirety of the oncoming Egyptian onslaught. According to Josephus (Antiquities 2:15:3, quoted in the footnotes of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah), though, our question is largely moot, as he describes the Egyptian forces as including 50,000 horsemen and 200,000 foot soldiers in addition to the 600 war chariots mentioned in the Chumash.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at
yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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If it seems out of reach, God will stretch your arm

Posted on 10 January 2019 by admin

I had it relatively easy. I met with a shadchan (a traditional Jewish matchmaker) one night in the middle of 2001, described myself (a then bright-eyed 21-year-old yeshiva student with an eye toward a future in Jewish outreach) and what I was looking for in a spouse, and shortly thereafter received suggestions of different girls to consider dating.
I went out once or twice with four different girls before relaying the news to the shadchan that I just didn’t think these girls were for me. It only took one date with the fifth girl I went out with to know that I had found my bashert, and a short 2½ weeks later, we were engaged. (It’s worth noting that this is an incredibly short courtship even by traditional standards — ahh, to be young and bold.) Overall the shidduch system had worked for me, and so, I imagined, did it work for everyone else.
My now wife burst that rosy bubble shortly after our engagement, explaining to me how hard it was for so many others. Girls left waiting by the phone, hoping to hear from a shadchan or a friend with a suggestion, only to go weeks or months without a call. I was flabbergasted. It seemed like the moment I called the shadchan to call off a courtship, another suggestion was at her fingertips ready to go. I hadn’t realized how fortunate I had been, and resolved then and there to be part of the solution.
My life in yeshiva quickly changed. Instead of sitting together with my close friends for lunch, I slowly made my way around the cafeteria, getting to know other yeshiva students whom I’d scarcely known before. I eventually compiled notebooks filled with comprehensive details about the yeshiva boys I had met, along with the candid details of what they were seeking in a bride. I would set them up with girls that I knew, or with single friends of my wife, and before we knew it, we had made three successful shidduchim.
Word got around town that there was a new shadchan in town and, as if overnight, I began getting calls from single girls and guys, fathers and mothers, both local and out of state, all around the clock. And phone calls weren’t the end of it. People wanted to meet with me face-to-face, the same as I had done with my shadchan many months before. And almost every night of the week, after a full day at study, I’d come home, eat a quick supper with my wife and newborn, and prepare for a barrage of eligible singles knocking on my apartment door.
We successfully made our fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh successful shidduchim, and along with that success came more and more visitors and more and more phone calls. I had planned to try to make a difference, but all of this, I could never have imagined. It was all too much for me.
Besides for the ridiculous demands on my already limited free time with my young family, I began feeling the growing pressure of the many expectant and hopeful singles that had put their hopes in me. I couldn’t possibly help them all, and it gnawed away at my core. A growing anxiety creeped in, grabbing hold of me and not letting go.
It was around this time of the year, the week of Parashat Shemot, that I walked to shul on a brisk Shabbat morning still filled with the disquieting shadchan angst that was increasingly hard to shake. I took a seat in the back and eyed the amazing array of sefarim (books on Jewish subjects) that lined the synagogue’s shelves. One old book caught my eye. It turned out to be a commentary on the weekly parasha written by one of the earlier rabbis to settle and establish Jewish life in Baltimore (unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the author). My interest was piqued, and so I turned to his writings on the week’s Torah reading.
The subject was the daughter of Pharaoh who, the Chumash relates, had gathered in and cared for the crying baby (later named Moshe) who had been floating down the Nile River in a wicker basket.
“Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe, to the Nile, and her maidens were walking along the Nile, and she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh, and she sent her maidservant, and she took it” (Shemot 2:5).
The rabbi noted Rashi’s commentary on this verse, which points out a homiletical interpretation of the Sages who suggest that the Hebrew word for “maidservant,” “amata,” can also mean an “arm.” Thus, the verse is teaching that the daughter of Pharaoh sent forth her arm to grasp the wicker basket and God miraculously lengthened her arm so that she could reach the distant child. (Whether this midrash is meant literally or figuratively is another matter.)
Upon this mysterious midrash, the rabbi from Baltimore wrote these words which are carved into my memory. “We learn from here that if we try our best to accomplish great deeds, however lofty and out-of-reach they may seem, God will stretch our reach, just as he stretched the daughter of Pharaoh’s reach, so that we might accomplish them.”
I exhaled a deep breath. I realized for the first time that it wasn’t my burden to worry about how many shidduchim I would make or how many people I would eventually help. These matters were far beyond me and my control. All I needed to focus on was sincerely reaching for the goal. It would ultimately be God’s job to stretch my arm, the Almighty’s task to complete the mission.
I walked home from shul that day and excitedly relayed the rabbi’s profound words to my wife over the Shabbat lunch meal. We smiled together and for the first time in a long time felt at peace.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Our environment has a big impact on our lives

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

I always imagined I’d be the same person I was outside of yeshiva as I was in yeshiva. Of course, yeshiva is a hotbed of religious passion and zeal, a place where one’s highest aspiration is to become as the great Torah teachers and sages who surround you.
The beit midrash (study hall) is filled throughout the day and much of the night with both the young and the old hunched over ancient, sacred tomes, plumbing their depths and delighting in new Torah discoveries. It wasn’t difficult to get caught up in the spirit of the place. On the contrary, one had to essentially and willfully remove oneself from the spiritual gusto to avoid being swept up in its wings.
Of course, I didn’t realize at that time just how much of my own religious devotion and iron-willed Torah-study focus was a product of living in that rarefied, supportive environment. I, like others, regarded my essential “self” and my value system as essentially one and the same; wherever I’d go my core tenets and commitments would surely follow.
And so, I surmised, if daily exertion in Torah study and fastidious attention to Jewish practice lay at my spirit’s ideological core, no circumstances that life outside of yeshiva might throw my way could, in any meaningful way, derail my life’s determined course.
I look back at my younger self now and realize how very naive I truly was.
Little did I know at the time just how much of my 26-year-old self would leave the larger yeshiva bubble along with me, fully intact, and how much of what I thought of as myself remained in reality as a free agent, susceptible and impressionable to outside influence and pressure (such was the case, even as I was solely transitioning to a spiritual “safe-space” in communal Jewish education).
Life in my new, smaller learning environs was an adjustment to say the least. It’s simply not as easy to remain as motivated in a beit midrash filled with eight people instead of a couple of hundred. And the sheer intellectual and spiritual “competition” (what the Talmud refers to as kinat soferim — the spiritually beneficial jealousy of the wise) that permeates and animates the yeshiva student in yeshiva — well, that was now mostly a thing of the past. It was a path of least resistance to find comfort in one’s newfound status as a learned person in this smaller enclave and to forget just how recently one had been sitting near the base of the totem pole of Jewish knowledge back in yeshiva. And that allowed for the slow setting in of spiritual stagnation and plateau.
This new environment would bring with it challenges to the religious life that I didn’t know existed and certainly wasn’t prepared for. A new set of tactics, I would quickly discern, would be needed to meet this new spiritual test head-on if I were to take the advancements I had acquired during my yeshiva years along with me into my second act.
Humans are deeply impacted by their environments and social circles. This much is well documented in both the social sciences as well as our own tradition. Pirkei Avot, for example, exhorts us on the one hand to “let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words” (1:4), and, on the other side, to “distance yourself from an evil neighbor and do not befriend the wicked person” (1:7). We human beings, after all, are ever-malleable in our natures, both for the good and the bad.
Maimonides, too, eloquently noted, “It is natural for a man’s character and actions to be influenced by his friends and associates and for him to follow the local norms of behavior. Therefore, he should associate with the righteous and be constantly in the company of the wise, so as to learn from their deeds. Conversely, he should keep away from the wicked who walk in darkness, so as not to learn from their deeds….”
Stuck in a place where you can’t escape negative influences? Maimonides suggests you “go out to caves, thickets, and deserts [rather than] follow the paths of sinners…” (De’ot 6:1). In such a degenerate society, returning Homo sapiens’ habitation to caves suddenly seems a great feat of human advancement.
And so, even as motivational speaker Jim Rohn may not have had humanity’s spiritual and ethical characters in mind when he uttered his now-famous words, “You are the average of the five people you most associate with,” we certainly ought to.
It was only recently, though, while studying the weekly parasha, that I fully realized the utter extent of the impact that one’s environment has upon the individual.
It had been a long, 22-year period of estrangement since Yaakov had last seen his embittered brother Esav. And last Yaakov knew, Esav was still out for his blood for stealthily wresting away his birthright blessing from their aged and blind father. What could Yaakov say or do these many years later to appease or disarm a bloodthirsty Esav and hope to escape this fateful meeting with his life and the lives of his family?
The text records that Yaakov devised a plan. He split up his children into their maternal groupings, each one a distance from the other, ensuring the survival of at least some of them in case of a military attack. He prepared long lines of lavish gifts for his brother, the better to soften a long-hardened heart. And finally, he commanded his servants ahead of him to share his carefully prepared words — words which on a surface level seem utterly unremarkable and flat.
“Thus shall you say to my master to Esav, ‘Thus said your servant Jacob, “I have sojourned (‘garti’) with Lavan, and I have lingered until now”’” (Beresheet 32:5).
Yaakov had indeed lingered these many years with Lavan, his wicked father-in-law. He had diligently tended his father-in-law’s flock day and night, and in return earned the right to marry his two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and acquire a sizable portion of livestock for himself.
But Rashi is more concerned with the hidden layers of meaning behind Yaakov’s words. The word “garti” (“sojourned”), notes Rashi, has the same numerical value as “taryag” (613). In other words, Yaakov’s words to Esav could equally be read, “(Know that) I have kept the 613 commandments while in Lavan’s house.”
This short and effective line was a warning shot.
For Yaakov was letting Esav know that God and His protective wings were still spread over him. Yes, it is true that he had been living in the shadow of a wicked man for over two decades, but no, he had not adopted his father-in-law’s evil ways along the way and subsequently fallen out of God’s graces. “I wouldn’t mess with me if you know what’s good for you!” was Yaakov’s subtle yet pointed intent.
What I find amazing, and that which I had never satisfactorily considered in the meaning of Rashi’s commentary, is the clear implication that Esav considered it a real and ever-present possibility that Yaakov, the crown jewel of the Forefathers, the one whom the Torah describes as “the dweller of tents” (a reference to his constant presence in the house of study) and the husband to two of our saintly Matriarchs, might have lost his spiritual way due to those years lived in close proximity to a wicked man.
And Yaakov, in seeming agreement as to the possibility of such a personally calamitous eventuality, feels the need to dispel those considerations!
What the Torah is teaching us is that nobody — no matter who you are, what family you come from or what you’ve accomplished in your lifetime — is immune from the forces of their environment. If Yaakov Avinu is at risk, so are we all.
How vigilant must we then be in guarding against the negative influences of the societies in which we live and how equally determined we must be to find and secure spiritually and ethically rich friends, communities and environs in which to spend most of our time. As long as we don’t imagine ourselves more powerful than the forces around us, we can, at a minimum, do our part to stack the decks of influence in our favor.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Avraham did well after winning his ‘lottery’

Posted on 29 November 2018 by admin

I’ll admit it. I got excited along with the rest of the country when the Mega Millions lottery hit a whopping $1.6 billion jackpot in October of this year. I bought a ticket and enjoyed an overly long conversation with my wife about what we would do with the money if we won.
We decided that we’d knock down our house and build a better one in its place (with a Texas-proof foundation), we’d take some amazing family vacations around the world, set up funds for all of our children and future grandchildren, and why not throw in a private chef for good measure (or at least until we get a kosher Chinese joint in town)?
We were just as excited, as I’m sure many readers can relate to, considering the new charitable vistas a billion dollars would open up to us. We could finally get our shul that building our community has been eyeing for years, and we could pay off the debts of organizations we admired. The possibilities were endless. I would be hard-pressed to argue that it wasn’t worth the $2 cost of the ticket for all the imaginative fun that little slip of paper created for us during those 24 spirited hours.
On the flip side of the mass lottery hysteria that was gripping the country lay a question that none of us, myself included, really wanted to consider, lest it ruin our collective daydreaming. Would winning the lottery be a genuinely positive thing for us in the first place?
Sure, we’ve read of lottery stories that warm the heart. The Lohse family from Bondurant, Iowa, who have used and continue to use their $202 million winnings to improve the lives of the people in their small city. They’ve made considerable improvements to their local parks, built a new football stadium for the local high school and even opened a $4.5 million grocery store because the city of 4,000 didn’t have one yet.
Other lottery winners reported on the news outlets have largely set aside self-indulgence, instead focusing on setting up considerable trust funds for all the current and future members of their family. These winners might not set records for charitable giving, but their winnings have certainly helped create comfortable lives for many of those around them.
But for every lottery success story we hear of, there seems to be a parallel tale of lottery nightmares to match. Stories of people losing preposterous amounts of winnings in short stretches of time on gambling, drugs, alcohol and vice. People whose lives have subsequently spun out of control, causing them to lose their marriages, their children and even their very lives.
How do we know, then, which camp we would fall in if we were to win the lottery? Would we use the lottery winnings for good, making the world and our families’ lives better in the process, or would such massive, newfound wealth corrupt and tempt us until we couldn’t recognize ourselves in the mirror?
Examining the details of the life of Avraham, the very first of the Jewish patriarchs, should shed much needed light on this matter. After all, is Avraham not the earliest recorded historical figure to win a lottery of sorts, when God, as if out of the blue, first reveals Himself to our forefather (then 75 years old) and promises him vast earthly wealth if he would but follow Him to the Holy Land?
As the Torah recounts:
“And the Lord said to Abram, ’Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing” (Beresheet 12:1-2).
And, as Rashi notes, “I will bless you” is a reference to a divine gift of wealth.
Avraham, in other words, was the very first person to hit all five lotto numbers and the Powerball.
What’s interesting to note is that the Sages of the Mishnah teach that Avraham was tested with 10 distinct trials during his lifetime, all of which he subsequently passed (Pirkei Avot 5:3), and all of the commentaries agree on one thing — God’s asking Avraham to leave his home and go to the Holy Land is counted as one of those 10 tests.
It’s hard to comprehend. I can imagine how hard it must be to uproot your family from your hometown, leaving much of your family behind and moving to a new, foreign and mysterious place (“the land that I will show you”), but who are we kidding? Is there anyone amongst us who wouldn’t take the leave-your-homeland challenge for divinely assured vast wealth? Sign me up!
According to Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, dean of the Talmudic University in Miami, Avraham’s test was not about the journey at all. The real test, in fact, was to arrive only after he received his promised riches. What would happen then? Would he use these gifts for himself or would he employ them to better humanity?
Avraham’s test was to be a foreshadowing of the tests that all future lottery winners would face one day.
Of course, we know how the Biblical narrative goes. Post-lottery Avraham becomes the everlasting paradigm of chesed (loving kindness), leaning on his resources to feed and care for hungry desert travelers who fatefully passed by his place of dwelling. The Midrash notes that Avraham didn’t stop there, instead taking the opportunity to nourish the travelers’ souls with teachings of the oneness of the Almighty and of the misguided nature of idolatry. Avraham, far from being corrupted by his earthly possessions, employed them in his life’s mission — to love and educate humanity.
And here lies Avraham’s secret to passing spiritual tests — extensive advance preparation. For although the text of the Chumash reveals almost nothing of Avraham’s life and nature before this first test, the oral tradition informs us of Avraham’s spiritually rich early years discovering the one true God, and of his later years — still before this first test — willingly persecuted for this belief. Avraham was prepared well in advance of God’s test, fortified with a deep sense of mission and purpose. When money was added to that equation, Avraham knew how to use it accordingly.
So, is it good to win the lottery? It all depends on your preparation.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Our Tree of Life must remain strong in tragedy

Posted on 09 November 2018 by admin

I heard about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue on my walk home from shul on Saturday afternoon. A Jewish neighbor of mine went out to grab his mail and stopped in his tracks when he saw my family and I walking down the sidewalk in our Shabbos attire. After a little informal chit-chat, he asked me about my feelings about Pittsburgh.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” I replied. “You mean you haven’t heard?” He stopped for a moment, seemingly surprised by my ignorance of the matter. “A gunman shot up a shul in Pittsburgh.”
My heart stopped. I was stunned to silence. However, as a Jew connected to a national memory stretching back through the anti-Semitic ages, I was not completely shocked.
I’m certainly not the only one who has sat in shul and proactively planned an escape route in case of a terror attack. In fact, I regularly think about my unique role in case of such an attack as one of the only people in my synagogue who faces the back of the sanctuary, with a perfect view of anyone, familiar or otherwise, who might come in.
As Shabbos ended, whatever feelings of peace and tranquility I had managed to retain over the remainder of the holy day left me as I read one news article after another and update after update on the carnage that was wrought in Squirrel Hill by a man firmly set on killing as many Jews as he could get his hands on. Sadness tinged with righteous anger filled me. One mourning Jewish heart in Texas reaching out to Jewish brothers and sisters far away.
My 9-year-old son noticed my distressed, mournful countenance, and soon I sat him down and told him what had transpired in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t long before tears began tumbling down his cheeks. “I’m scared to go to shul,” he said. “Will that happen to us too?”
I’ve no doubt many Jewish parents had this same conversation with their children that night and in the days that followed. Sadly enough, such conversations are Jewish rites of passage — waking us up to a realization as old as our people that we live in a world in which people might want to kill us for the simple fact that we are Jews.
I remember sharing my sons fears and waking up to the truth of the fragile existence of the Jew in this world during what seemed like yearly bomb threat evacuations at my Jewish day school in Atlanta and through multiple swastika-painting incidents at two different schools I attended. More than these events, though, it was watching CNN’s live coverage of scud missiles raining down on Israel during the Persian Gulf War that made me fully aware of the potential consequences of my heritage. I was only a little older than my 9-year-old son was then.
We, as individuals and communities, will mourn and pray over the coming days and weeks. We will try, as best we can, to allay our children’s fears. These things are both appropriate and praiseworthy. But we must equally confront the hulking elephant in all of our rooms. The question of all questions at a time like this. Why do we continue to expose ourselves and our children to this national fate? Why do we not choose to slink back and camouflage ourselves amongst our non-Jewish neighbors and communities? We can assimilate as many others have done before. And so, the question remains, why don’t you? And why don’t I?
Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief for The Daily Wire, asked this question to his audience of online readers and wrote what I believe to be a quintessentially Jewish response to the question. I will leave you with his profound words, words which we ought to share with our children as they begin to navigate their new reality in a world much darker than it was but days ago.
“In that Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday morning, the Jew-hating murderer rushed into a room in which a brit milah was taking place: a circumcision ceremony, a ceremony as old as the Jewish people, a ceremony welcoming an 8-day-old child into the community of the Jews. In other parts of the synagogue, different minyanim were reading the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac on a mountain.
“Why would Jews continue to inaugurate children into the most targeted community in human history? Jewish destiny may be inescapable, but why embrace that destiny? The members of the Tree of Life synagogue were shot to death in a synagogue. So why continue to cluster in synagogues, fulfilling age-old commandments, the elderly passing down their traditions to infants?
“Because, as the Tree of Life synagogue’s name attests, the Torah — the Jewish destiny — is a ‘tree of life for all those who cling to it.’ (Proverbs 3:18) And we are enjoined to choose life. That, after all, is the story of Abraham and Isaac: a story not of God asking Abraham to kill his son, but a story of God asking if Abraham is willing to place his son in mortal danger in service to God — and God’s grace in saving Isaac thanks to Abraham’s commitment. That is the story of the Jewish people. That is the story members of the Tree of Life Synagogue were reading as they died al kiddush Hashem, in the sanctification of God’s name.
“And that is the story of our civilization. An attack on the Tree of Life is an attack on all of us — those of us who wish to imbue our own children with a sense of Godliness in a dark world, a sense of eternal value in a society eating away at itself. Inside the sanctuary, all was peaceful on the Sabbath — until the gunshots rang out.
“The only proper response is the same response Jews have given throughout time: to fight back. To stubbornly cling to that which stamps us with the image of God. To fight darkness with light, untruth with truth, and death with life.”

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With G-d as my witness, I shall not want

Posted on 18 October 2018 by admin

If a man achieves a great feat in a forest and no one is there to witness it, does the success resonate less within the man? Does it feel less significant?
It’s a difficult question, I admit.
As for myself, I can’t shake this feeling inside of me that a great act both deserves and requires a great witnessing to match; and that the witnessing itself impresses significance upon a deed (a retelling of one’s personal unwitnessed events to interested parties often serves as something of a surrogate witnessing). After all, we humans are selective viewers, restricting our purview to those things we deem worthy of our time and interest, and keeping our watchful eyes on the goings-on of only people we care about most. The gift of one’s attention says, “What’s going on here matters.” It proclaims, “These actions, these lives no less, are significant and meaningful!”
As the character of the wife in “Shall We Dance” answers to the question of why she wants to be married:
“We need a witness to our lives. There are eight billion people on the planet…I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything — the good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things…all of it, all the time, every day. You’re saying, ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’”
In an article in Psychology Today (Aug. 22, 2016), Dr. William S. Breitbart writes extensively and eloquently of this collective need to be witnessed:
“What is clear is that we human beings need to have our lives witnessed, Viktor Frankl wrote ‘the only thing worse than suffering is suffering that goes unwitnessed.’ (Frankl – The Doctor and the Soul, 1955/1986). This need for our lives to be witnessed, I believe, is related to the concept of ‘significance.’ The question of significance is an essential one. ‘Did it matter that I lived?’ ‘Did I leave some mark in this world?’ ‘Did I have some impact on this world or on someone?’ Was there a ‘sign’ that I was here. The idea of having a life witnessed relates to the question of whether someone else in this world noticed me, and ultimately judged the value of my life. It is as if one was a playwright and had a play that only you performed, but was never viewed by an audience, or reviewed by a theater critic. Were you a playwright? Was the play a work of art? A work of great significance?”
Witnessing has an additional function, as within it lies the power to lift up the moments in our lives to transcendent heights. If unobserved accomplishments last but singular moments in time and live on in but the select hearts and minds of the protagonists themselves, witnessed occasions take on a lifeforce of their own, inviting others to both partake in the moments of our lives as well as to share their memories of the event with others not present. A witnessed event may be recorded in a book or passed down as family or national narrative. And the life of that witnessed event can long survive the life of the character of whom the story is told. As such, witnesses allow us to transcend the limited confines of both self and time. It allows for the building of legacy.
But there are significant drawbacks to our need to be witnessed, great dangers awaiting our demand for external validation and significance. It’s true that we tend to act better in the company of others than we do in the privacy of our own homes, but it’s easy to fall in to the trap of worrying more about “looking good” than actually working on “being good.”
And with eyes focused outward comes both unhealthy societal pressures that must be met if we are to remain in good standing with our neighbors and peers, as well as a steady inculcation of foreign value systems that work to slowly but steadily replace our Jewish values for central primacy in our lives.
What’s more, there is scant room for the development of the prized trait of humility when “likes” on social media don’t generate themselves — we need to be “out there” for the public to see if we are to earn their approval and esteem.
And after all is said and done, we still find ourselves questioning if we are truly loved and valued by the people around us. It’s a no-win affair.
Breitbart suggests a different, rather confounding solution to the witnessing dilemma at the tail end of his article. He concludes that we, ourselves, serve as our own life’s witnesses:
“We are never completely alone. Our observing ‘self’ or ego is our constant companion; that constant voice, commentator, judge, critic, witness to our lives. In living a truly authentic life, the only judge or critic who really matters is us, our observing self. So as you live, you are creating your legacy through witnessing and striving towards a life of significance.”
While Breitbart’s solution circumvents the many issues detailed above that emerge from the need of external validation, his suggestion seems more word play than anything else. For, in as much as I am more or less aware of the details of my life, I cannot also bear witness to my life. A witness stands ipso facto removed from the person being witnessed, and any significance that a witness brings to the table derives from the very fact that he is separate. It’s hard, then, to believe that many, if any, will find comfort in a life “self-witnessed.”
And what of the transcendence of external witnessing? What of the comfort that comes with the knowledge that one’s life, one’s legacy, will endure beyond the grave, in the memories and in the impact made upon those still living? In Breitbart’s vision one must be satisfied that “The legacy you live does not require remembering after death; it is a legacy lived unto death.” I, for one, find no solace in such a forecast.
There are other issues, as well. While external validation often comes with unhealthy societal pressures, it also comes with healthy pressures that push us forward. Caring friends and family tell it like it is, pointing out areas in one’s life that require attention and improvement. Their cajoling is generally aimed at moving us out of our comfort zone (the thing we despise the most), something “self-witnessing” is less likely to generate on its own.
And none of this touches upon the problem that is the natural conclusion that Breitbart reaches, that in “self-witnessing” we become “the only judge or critic who really matters.” That’s a biased judge indeed, one more likely to accept excuses and let things slide than to convict and chastise. Can we really, then, rely upon ourselves alone to know if we are acting appropriately and living lives of real significance?
There is a third option, though, one that sidesteps the pitfalls of both external witnesses and Breitbart’s “self-witnessing”: G-d is our life’s witness. G-d carefully watches all we do, both because we are the apple of His eye (“So said the L-rd, ‘My firstborn son is Israel. [Shemot 22:4]’”), and because our lives matter so that the Almighty himself to cares to watch.
The benefits of G-d serving as our witness are multifold. For starters, He’s always witnessing, and the entirety of our lives is uplifted and transcended in His witnessing (as opposed to human witnessing, which only covers the public portion of our lives).
With G-d as our witness, we are propelled to evolve into our best selves – to become more and more G-dlike. Such witnessing generates a healthy external pressure without any of the damaging and often misguided social pressures that come with human witnessing.
There is no concern of foreign value systems creeping into our lives with G-d as our witness. To the contrary, we are infused with the will to keep our Witness’ values in the face of competing value systems. As King David proclaims, “I will speak of Your testimonies before kings, and I will not be ashamed” (Tehillim 119:46). And with our steadfast commitment to living a life in consonance with G-d’s will, we can feel confident in the knowledge that we are living big, significant lives and bound tightly in the favor of the only One whose opinion really matters.
Equally as important, with our need for witnessing fulfilled in full by G-d, we come to grasp that we need not the approval or recognition of flesh and blood, and with this final, vital shard of wisdom the gates of humility open up to us in all their glory. Our compulsion for self-promotion and exhibitionism slowly give way to the subtle pleasures of humble living, and the excitement once felt whilst basking in the limelight moves aside for the hallowed feelings which arise when we let the other lights around us shine a little brighter. It is fair to say that with G-d as my witness I shall not want for anything more.

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Spiritual redemption can help reverse your addictions

Posted on 04 October 2018 by admin

The Talmudic story of Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya seems to materialize itself in most Yom Kippur sermons. And for good reason. This is a story whose message is as inspirational as it is timely – that no one is too far removed for teshuvahh (repentance).
And yet, the story ends suddenly, with the protagonist’s early death — a death that arrives amid a downpouring of remorseful and broken-hearted tears. And it is this part of the story that is so rarely expounded upon or explained (after all, better to focus on the happy stuff). And that is a shame, for in the proper interpretation of the story’s cryptic conclusion lies arguably the greatest lesson on teshuvahh of them all.
“It was said of Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya that he did not leave out any harlot in the world without coming to her. Once, he heard that there was a certain prostitute in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of coins for her hire. He took a purse of coins and crossed seven rivers for her sake. As he was with her, she blew forth breath and said: ‘As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordaya never be received in repentance.’ … Said he: The matter then depends upon me alone! He placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed. Then a bat-kol [a prophetic voice] was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya is destined for the life of the world to come!’ … Rebbe [on hearing of it] wept and said: One may acquire eternal life after many years, another in one hour! Rebbe also said: Not only are penitents accepted, they are even called ‘Rabbi’! (Talmud Avoda Zara 17a)”
Teshuvah is supposed to lead to a fresh start, to another crack at the good life. Not so for Rabbi Eleazar. And according to Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva of Greater Washington, the reason for Rabbi Eleazar’s death is as clear and obvious as it is tragic.
For Rabbi Eleazar, life was about one thing and one thing only, maximizing sensual pleasure. And, as evidenced from the story above, he chased after this objective with all of his heart, all of his soul and all of his resources.
But when Rabbi Eleazar recognized that this final sinful escapade had led him down a spiritual path of no return, that he had hit his rock bottom, he knew that he needed to make amends for the life he had lived and right away. His waterfall of prolonged tears made clear that his regret was of a sincere and authentic nature and that his teshuvah would be accepted.
Nevertheless, his teshuvah also, inevitably, put an abrupt end to his life’s great pursuit, his essential joy and his reason for getting up in the morning. His teshuvah became his dead end instead of his fresh start. And utter despair and malignant hopelessness set in and finished the job. For without hope death is as inevitable as tomorrow’s sunrise, as certain as gravity’s pull.
Had Rabbi Eleazar developed a prior sensitivity to the spiritual pleasures of this world, had he come to know that there were other things besides carnal pleasure that could touch his senses and enliven his heart, he might have filled the void left by the loss of his life’s immoral pursuit with an equally potent spiritual calling. Alas, such was not the case with Rabbi Eleazar, and in his death we are made conscious of the somber consequences of an unresolved teshuvah.
Had Rabbi Eleazar lived today he would have been called an “addict” (the Talmud calls him “avik bah tuva” — “greatly attached” to immorality) and hopefully found his way into a 12-Step program in the mold of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s indeed encouraging that the 12-step model seems to have picked up on the fateful lesson of the Talmud’s tale, introducing the addict to the dynamic force that is spirituality and G-d consciousness (six of the 12 Steps involve a higher power), to feed the hunger pangs long quieted by vice.
A September 2005 article in Business Report (“Rabbi claims to have cracked the addiction code”) featuring Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a world-renowned addiction specialist, effectively describes the successful 12-Step phenomena and its core tenet of spirituality.
“Whether the person is a specialist or a hobo (or both), if they have an addiction problem, the underlying symptoms are the same: hungry ghosts demanding to be fed. All addicts describe the gaping, empty hole inside; they feel something is missing in their lives and they try to fill it with substances or relationships or careers, ever seeking the secret to happiness that will change their haunted lives.
“I too searched far and wide for the cure to addiction, but my medical and psychiatric background did not lead me to the cure because the source of addiction does not lie here.
“After half a century in psychiatric practice, I know without a doubt that the source of addiction is spiritual deficiency. Irrespective of whether we are religious or atheist, all human beings are spiritual by nature and spirituality is the cornerstone of our recovery.”
Spirituality, he said, is the secret substance that feeds our hungry ghosts, that fills the gaping hole. “Spirituality comes to all of us when we finally face ourselves, are honest with ourselves and learn to respect and care for ourselves and others. Without it we die.”
Such is the cycle of not only addiction, but of man’s continued reliance upon sin. When spiritually deficient, we seek to feed our disquieted inner void with counterfeit goodies, only to find that these goodies are more impediment than resolution, more disease than salve. And so, in sheer desperation, we begin the long and difficult trek up the sacred mountain, uncovering our long dormant spiritual sides and feeding our “hungry ghosts” the only genuinely nutritious food that will sustain it – soul food.
We can all learn much from Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya’s death as well as from the life-saving formula of the 12 Steps. For a teshuvah process to be successful in the long run, it’s just as much about stopping the bad as it is about replacing it with the good.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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