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Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanuka!

Friday, 7 December, 2018 - 3:39 am

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

It must have felt eerie. To have the most powerful man in Egypt, the power behind the Pharaoh, know your childhood secrets.

Imagine being granted an audience with the chief minister of a super power. Out of the blue they start asking you questions about pranks you pulled on your sibling’s in your early childhood. Or they show that they know about your family rivalries and secrets, the nature of which you would never share outside the four walls of your house. (Today you would assume that there was a secret camera in your house. Three and a half thousand years ago that wasn’t within the realm of the imaginable).

That’s the way the brother of Joseph felt when they stood before him asking to buy grain during the regional famine.

Unbeknownst to them Joseph was their brother. He knew them literally from the cradle. A stranger would indeed never have been privy to that level of intimate knowledge about the family. But Yosef was not a stranger. There was not even a remote thought in their mind that the governing minister of Egypt was their long lost – sold – brother. So the uncanny knowledge this minister had into the minutiae of their family life left them ‘spooked out’.

The story unfolds in this week’s Torah reading and next week’s as you can read in the clickable links.

All their questions became answered immediately once Yosef revealed his true identity. It was like turning on a light in a pitch black room after one has wandered around the room bumping into various items and not knowing what the nature of the room is. One could be groping around a room which contains a sink, metal instruments and other accouterments and not know the nature of the room. Is it an operating theater? A home kitchen? Perhaps a science lab. Without the gift of sight and light and without the benefit of other information, you would literally be ‘left in the dark’ as to the exact function of the room you are in. The moment the light goes on, in a split second, everything becomes clear. The myriads of questions you had about the odd shapes and various textures of the objects in the room, becomes self-evident immediately upon being able to see.

With our Jewish identities it is sometimes not very different.

I have heard from many a searching Jew, that he or she have gone through periods in their life feeling like something is missing. Not feeling entirely happy with their lives even though everything seems to be going well. Their mundane successful lives were lacking true depth and meaning. Some may have temporarily assuaged this feeling by experimenting with other cultures, religions or philosophies. They may have even started to believe that Judaism was merely an ethnicity or cultural context.

Till they saw a swastika paraded by anti-Semites and their blood started boiling. Or they heard about a heinous shooting in Pittsburgh or G-d forbid a missile falling in Israel and they couldn’t just go on with ‘life as usual’. Perhaps they read in the news headlines about a fellow Jew committing a crime which is grossly unethical and bad and they cringed upon reading it.

They then started to wonder. Why am I reacting so passionately? Do I really care so much about my Jewishness?

On the positive side, people have shared with me that after engaging with their Jewishness by participating in Jewish events and performing mitzvahs they had the warm feeling of having ‘come home’. The amazing thing is, that these are people who didn’t have any prior Jewish experiences in their lives until they were many decades old.

It is difficult to make sense of this. I have a friend who grew up in a traditional home and used to observe quite a few mitzvahs to the best of his ability. After the horrific terror attacks in France a few years ago, he sent me an email that was painful to read.

Here is what he wrote:

I am not writing this to disrespect you … I have lost all faith in organized religion and I believe strongly that all religions are manmade and that religion is a form of brainwashing. None of us would feel Jewish if we had not had a Jewish upbringing.…

I can’t blame him for thinking that his ‘Jewish conscience’ is a byproduct of his Jewish upbringing. He was brought up with Judaism from his early childhood on.  He does not yet realize that even those who are not brought up with Jewish observance feel a sense of inner peace and ‘homecoming’ when they respond to the needs of the Jewish soul within them.

It is an existential reality. The Jewish soul only feels satisfied when it is engaged in a purposeful relationship with G-d.

My friend who thinks that feeling Jewish is all about the way you were brought up, is in for a surprise. In my eyes, a pleasant surprise. I don’t know when it will happen. I do know that it will happen though. My prayer is that he gets back to his Jewish senses when he is young, healthy and energetic. This way there will still be time to realign himself on a more wholesomely Jewish track and contribute his share to the glorious destiny of our people.

This is a powerful inner message we take from Chanuka. The story of Chanuka is the victory over the overwhelmingly stronger enemy, finding the untainted, sealed oil and the miraculous eight days that the Menorah burned. The oil used needed to be sealed by the unbreakable seal of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).

This flask of oil symbolizes the spark of Jewishness within us. It is a spark that cannot be contaminated. Almighty G-d has sealed it and it remains inviolable.  Come what may, the Jewish soul retains its pristine holiness and innocence. No force in the world can harm it.

This Chanuka I got to see the ‘flask of oil’ – Jewish spark in action.  This is a story that is seven-plus decades in the making.

Dan Rosenthal came to shul in Bangkok when he was seventy-five years old. For the first time. After living here for many years something pulled him to the Synagogue. We put on Tefilin for what I believe was the first time in his life and subsequently every time we met we would lay Tefilin. It was a blossoming relationship that I enjoyed with Dan whom I last saw at our son's bar mitzvah a short time ago. He loved the joy and the dancing. During our last formal meeting just before Yom Kippur the topic of burial came up. I told Dan, who has several children, none of whom are Jewish, to make sure to convey his wishes for a Jewish burial in writing. As well, he should be sure to include a percentage of his estate to Jewish charity so that his Jewish legacy should continue.

These are standard things I make sure to mention to people. Not because I think something will happen to them in the immediate future. I have simply seen too many people leave this world without having addressed the topic of burial in their final wishes.*

Little did I know that a bare two months later I would get the notice that Dan had passed away after an emergency surgery during a visit to Manila. His wishes were made clear to his son. ‘If something happens, call Rabbi Yosef Kantor and arrange for a Jewish burial in Thailand’. (On Sunday please G-d the burial will take place here in the Jewish cemetery in Bangkok at 4:00 PM).

Here is a classic case of the indomitable spirit of the Jew. A ‘flask of oil’. Untainted. A soul can never lose its G-dly qualities. But this soul was not fed with the things a Jewish soul really craves. A Tefilin laying, some Tzedaka to Jewish causes, Passover Seder, Torah study. For many decades the soul seems neglected in terms of tending to its Jewish needs. The ‘oil’ doesn’t seem enough to last for more than one day. Maybe till the bar mitzvah. Maybe not even.

Miraculously the ‘oil’ lasts for eight days.

Smack in the middle of his eighth decade his soul was obviously as inspired as ever. It started shining ever more brightly. Bright enough that in the few minutes he had before going under the surgeon’s scalpel he expressly stated his final wishes to be buried as a Jew.

Dan came into the world as a Jew. Dan will leave the world as a Jew. The ‘oil’, the ‘pintele yid’ (spark of Jewishness) remains uncontaminated till the end.

I am sharing this important information. To save time and concern. To make sure you don’t get ‘spooked out’ when all of a sudden the urge to be more Jewishly engaged wells up in your soul. Recognize that you can never run away from who you truly are. A Jew is born a Jew and remains a Jew and will never truly feel fulfilled without feeding and engaging with his or her neshama – Jewish soul.

The Torah teaches us this unequivocal truth. This is the basis of everything my colleagues and I do. This was the unwavering message of the Rebbe to our generation. Do a mitzvah because it’s the most natural and wholesome thing you can do for self-actualization. The truest expression of your inner self is recognized when you live your life in sync with your inner being. It is the only way to true tranquility and peace of mind and spirit.

Let us embrace our inner ‘oil’. Smothering it doesn’t work. Thousands of dollars spent on therapists won’t change the reality of the truth of who we are. It is our choice to consciously progress in our own self-realization and actualize our inner potential.

The message of Chanuka is:

Discover the spark of your true Jewish self. Kindle your personal menorah through engaging in Yiddishkeit by studying Torah and observing Mitzvah’s. Don’t try to do everything at once. Gradually. One day at a time. One additional mitzvah-light at a time. Until all eight branches of the candelabra of your soul are illuminated and shed the beautiful light and inspiration of G-d’s teachings to all of your family, your community and by extension to all of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom & Happy Chanuka

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

* (It is also painful when a person who wants Judaism to continue for eternity doesn’t explicitly leave a Jewish legacy gift from their estate. Next of kin and heirs may not always share the vision and views of the deceased. It was the generations before us that provided for us and we need to provide for the future so that Judaism has the wherewithal to continue to flourish in the next generation. I am happy to report that several people have shared with me that they have included The Jewish Association of Thailand and Chabad Foundation of Thailand in their planned giving. For more information feel free to contact me).

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