Where Every Jew is Family

Nazis Torch Olympics

So, the Winter Olympics are happening and I think there’s some pertinent information that Jews should know both from modern history and biblically.

In the time of the original games within the boundaries of Olympia, the altar of the sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Hestia maintained a continuous flame. During the Olympic Games, which honored Zeus, additional fires were lit at his temple and that of his wife, Hera. The modern Olympic flame is ignited at the site where the temple of Hera used to stand.
Now, whether the idolatrous origins of this make it unfit for Jews is not really the purpose of this email. Ask your local rabbi.

However, Let’s take a look at the first continuous flame. That is mentioned in this week’s Torah portion. The menorah in the Temple was kept aflame by the High Priest. Kabbalah explains that the reason the menorah contained 7 branches is to represent the 7 emotional attributes of the soul.

Aaron, and every High Priest after him, had the job of igniting the souls of every Jew. By lighting the menorah, he was elevating the flame of our souls to come closer.

In Psalms, it says “ner hashem, nishmas adam” The candle of G-d is the human soul. We are candles and the mitzvot are our fuel.

Every mitzvah generates light, whether it involves giving a coin to charity, putting on tefillin, or eating matzah on Passover.

And this is even more pronounced in the mitzvah of Shabbat, Yom Tov and Chanukah candles where that spiritual light is manifest physically.

There’s a mini “Jews Did it First” for you ūüėõ

So, about the Nazi’s:
I found it very interesting that the modern convention of moving the Olympic flame via a relay system from Greece to the Olympic venue began in 1936 in Germany. Carl Diem (the Secretary General of the Organizing Committee of the Berlin Olympic Games) devised the idea of the torch relay for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin that was organized by the Nazis under the guidance of Joseph Goebbels. Hitler saw the link with the ancient games as the perfect way to illustrate his belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich.


He Gave His House to Whom?


It came out this week that His house was given to the most unlikely person:


In a moment that transformed cosmic history, G-d put His home, His holy temple down here on this earth for us. In this week’s parsha, He gives instructions to the Jewish people on how to build the mishkan (tabernacle) in the desert.

Kabbalah explains that G-d’s core presence in this world was continuously moving further and further away based on a series of severe sins committed by seven wicked people up until the time of Abraham. However, seven righteous people, beginning with Abraham and culminating with Moses, brought G-d’s presence back into the world.

The mechanism by which the final stage of G-d’s re-merge with the world was the mishkan, a “dwelling place” for G-d in the world.

But how can G-d’s presence still be felt in the world if the mishkan (and subsequently the Holy Temple which replaced it) are no longer here?

This is answered in this week’s parsha as well.

When G-d gave instructions for the miskan, He told us, “Make for me a mikdash (holy place) and I will dwell in you.” Why didn’t He say I will dwell in it?

Because G-d is telling us that we are that Temple. Sure, the structure is important and we yearn for the coming of moshiach when the Temple will come back and it’s service will be reinstituted. But G-d also knew that we would be in a position where we wouldn’t have that building. Therefore, He says that He will dwell in us!

That’s why it’s so important to take care of our bodies and use them to fulfill G-d’s plan for the world, learning Torah and doing mitzvot. So get out there today and do another mitzvah. You’ll be purifying your body and purifying the world, making it a place for G-d’s presence.

~Rabbi Yossi



After over a year of scandal, we’ve all been waiting on pins and needles for the anticipated release of the document which would give us a behind the scenes look at the highest echelons.

This week, it finally came!  The best memo of all, the Torah!

In this week’s Torah portion G-d, Himself, came down on Mt. Sinai to deliver the Torah to the Jewish people.

For a year, they witnessed Moses deliberating with Pharaoh, plagues wrought on the Egyptians and miracles the never witnessed before or since.

But why did G-d have to give the Torah to the Jewish people in the desert?¬† Couldn’t he have just given it to them in the land of Egypt, in their homes.¬† Wouldn’t that have been easier.

The reason is that had they been given the Torah at home, in their community, they could easily make the argument that the Torah is for when we’re home or in the city with Jewish infrastructure: kosher butchers around the corner, judaica shops nearby.¬† How can I keep Shabbat when I’m not in a Jewish community where everyone else is doing the same?

No, no, no! The Torah is applicable everywhere and every time. Even in the desert, where there’s no other civilization, G-d’s eternal law must be followed.

How much more so today when even in a non-Jewish area (like Oswego :-P) we have access to anything we want thanks to mass production and the internet. Need to learn Torah? Go to Chabad.org (or contact your local rabbi). Need kosher food? About 40% of items in your local store are kosher anyway (not to mention services that will mail you groceries). Need tefillin? You can have them ordered and shipped all the way from Israel (or NYC, LA, Montreal, whatever) with the click of a mouse or a phone call).

In today’s global economy, Judaism is right at your fingertips, even in a place which seems like a Jewish wilderness. So pick a mitzvah you aren’t doing yet and click away! You’ll be glad you did. And you don’t have to keep it a secret since the memo was declassified 3,330 years ago!

Have a great week!
~Rabbi Yossi Madvig

Why Those 10?


Every semester, we teach a Jewish learning course to the students at SUNY Oswego. We ask them to make a list of commandments that they would give if they were G-d and came once in history to the world to give them a message of how to behave.

We get all sorts of great answers like “be peaceful,” “be kind,” “respect everyone,” and the like. Then we see the 10 commandments and it’s nothing like that! This is G-d’s big debut and He tells people don’t take your neighbors donkey! What gives? Wouldn’t something a little more profound be more appropriate for the situation?

If you’ll notice, the major difference between G-d’s big 10 and those that we might feel are better suited for humanity is that ours are very general whereas G-d’s are quite specific.

The reason for this is because big ideas don’t usually get you very far. It’s too vague. One person might say or do something that they feel is perfectly acceptable, nice, or peaceful and the other person takes it as offensive. We need specifics.

The Torah has all sorts of big ideas in it. Love your fellow as yourself, make a dwelling place for G-d, etc. But when it comes to highlighting to humanity how to make it happen, G-d doesn’t stick to the big ideas, He gets down to the nitty gritty. HOW are you going to accomplish this?

Technically, you don’t even need the big idea. Imagine a world where people honored their parents, dedicated one day a week solely for divine worship, honored their parents, didn’t lie, steal, etc.? It would be a veritable utopia! With the specifics in place, the big picture comes about automatically.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have the goal in sight. We need to know what it is we’re trying to accomplish. That way, we know when we’re getting there. But the Torah is telling us how to live. How to get to the big picture.

So take some practical steps this week to make this world a better place. Give charity, eat kosher, observe Shabbat, put on tefillin, light Shabbat candels. Do something specific so we can all enjoy being that much closer to G-d’s master plan of a beautiful, kind, peaceful Earth!

Shavua Tov!
~Rabbi Yossi


As tweets of #thoughtsandprayers has been going around after last weeks massacre, I’ve been thinking about the question posed by many in the media and on social media, is that enough?¬†¬†

As a religious person, I find it very comforting that people are praying for those who lost love ones or are going through hard times.

With that said, is it enough?¬† In most cases, there has to be some physical action taken in order to affect that for which you are praying.¬† You can pray for good crops, but you’ve got to work and plant the field.¬†

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac and Rebecca pray for children.¬† But we all know that they couldn’t stay in separate corners praying.¬† They’re going to have to meet up at some point.

But the Torah doesn’t tell us that they had children because of their actions.¬† It says very clearly, “and the L-rd accepted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived.”

While there are many things we have to do on our part, we have to remember that it is G-d who bestows the blessings. Everything comes to us because of G-d’s influence.¬† We play our part, but G-d is the one doing all of the “heavy lifting”!¬† To quote our last president, “You didn’t build that!”

With that said, we are certainly keeping those affected by the Texas shooting in our thoughts and prayers in the hopes that G-d comforts them in their time of need.

Many people are at a loss for what to say at a funeral or hearing horrible news in general. And the truth is, what can you say?¬† I heard once that it’s for this reason Judaism offers a prescribed response. When hearing bad news, we say “Baruch dayan ha’emet, blessed is the true Judge.¬† To a mourner we say, “May G-d comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” No one expects you to be a poet.¬† Saying something scripted, but truthfully, is all you can do sometimes.

So, keep thinking and praying.  And also, help if you can.

Shavua Tov!
~Rabbi Yossi

Jews Laugh, Arabs Cry


After terrorizing a local Jewish family in south-central Israel, an Arab woman and her son were exiled into the Israeli desert.

Abraham’s son, Yishmael was very cruel to Isaac and Sarah would have nothing of it.¬† Therefore, Abraham was told by Sarah and G-d to send away Hagar and Yishmael. While traveling, Yishmael, who was sick, was apparently on the brink of death and his mother cried out to Hashem for help.

He heard her prayers and provided a well and Yishmael was nursed back to health.  Then, they were promised that he would father a great nation (i.e. the Arab inhabitants of the middle east).

Yishemael was actually named thus due to another time his mother cried after being sent away for mistreating Sarah (old habits die hard, I suppose). The name Yishmael means, “G-d hears (my cries).”

But the Jews?¬† How did we begin?¬† With laughter!¬† Upon hearing from G-d of the miraculous birth of Isaac at 99 years old in last week’s parsha, Abraham laughs.¬† In this week’s parsha, Sarah laughs as well when hearing the proclamation by the angels that she will have a son.

Not only did they laugh and rejoice, but when Isaac was born others celebrated and rejoiced.  They made a whole party for the occasion with all of the most important people in the region.

Fast forward 37 centuries and we’re still laughing!¬† Jews have been oppressed and abused throughout history.¬† But instead of being bitter at the world or crying “Unfair!” we hold our heads high, celebrate our beautiful heritage and continue to be a light unto the nations, as is our calling.

There’s a lot to cry about in life and it’s easy to get stuck in the depressing parts.¬† But our job is to recognize that G-d is in charge and knows what He’s doing.¬† So rejoice in His goodness and hold your head high, for you are the heir the greatest treasure – Torah and mitzvot!

~Rabbi Yossi

Jews Did it First


This week shows us the life of the first Jew in human history, Abraham our father and it’s¬†so exciting!

In the first Torah portion, things start out great, but ends with the expulsion from the Eden and Cain and Abel. Last week, we had the flood and the tower of Babel.  But every day this week, we follow the adventures of Abraham as he travels to the holy land, becomes fabulously wealthy, has major military victories.

And it ends off with the promise of Isaac, the first person born a Jew!

One reason for the excitement is because of a talmudic dictum, ma’aseh avot siman l’banim, loosely translated, the stories of our ancestors are a sign for us.¬† Everyone likes feeling nostalgic.¬† When we think about great things that happened to us in the past or to our ancestors, it gives us a good feeling and a sense of pride.

All the more so when it’s Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.¬† They are the backbone of the Jewish people.¬† The events of their lives aren’t just great history, but show us and guide us in our daily lives.

One such story is the saving of Abraham’s nephew, Lot.¬† Lot was, shall we say, not your model Jewish citizen.¬† He enjoyed the “hedonism” of Sodom and Gammorah and parted ways with Abraham.

However, when he was captured in a war, Abraham single-handedly defeated his enemies to save him.

We all have that cousin, uncle, sibling, etc. that we just don’t get along with. Whether it’s because we can’t see eye to eye on ANYTHING or because that did something we find unforgivable. Abraham and Lot teach us that when push comes to shove and they really need you, you need to be there for them.¬† In fact, even if it’s just a regular Tuesday, you should be there for them.

Okay, so they’ve done x, y or z.¬† And what, you’re so perfect?¬† This is what “love your fellow as yourself” is all about. It’s the Golden Rule.¬† We are all brothers and sisters since G-d is our Father.¬† So try giving that estranged family member (otherwise known as your fellow Jew) a friendly call.

Speaking of first Jews and the golden rule, I’d like to announce the launch of my new podcast, Jews Did it First, available on itunes, google play, stitcher and facebook!¬† In fact, the fist episode is called, “The Golden Rule,” so check it out!

I’ll be going through various items in literature, philosophy, law, ethics, mythology and more and show how there’s so much that stem from Jews and Judaism.¬† Please, check it out, subscribe and leave a review!

Have a great week!
~Rabbi Yossi

Mass Shooting, Be Happy?

This week’s email has probably been the hardest one for me to write.

We are now in the happiest time of the Jewish calendar.¬† In fact, it’s called “zman simchatenu” (season of our joy).¬† But just before entering this exciting time, we experienced the the worst mass shooting in modern American history.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of those who went through that horrible event and to those who’ve lost love ones. I can’t imagine suffering such a horrific event and pray that none of us ever have to in the future!

How do we bring these two together?¬† How do we celebrate with G-d when the biggest question of history (“How could He let this happen?”) is staring us in the face?

There is a rule in the mishnah (Avot 4:23) that you should not comfort a man while his dead lies in front of him.¬† There needs to be a time for silence and mourning.¬† That’s why it was so frustrating to see everyone staking out their political positions within hours of the shooting.¬† I was even tempted to start analyzing what happened and why.

But a week later, after the tears, the funerals and the reflection, what do we do?¬† I can’t help but feel that the timing is symbolic.¬† Days after the shooting, we began the holiday of Sukkot.¬† With joyous song, great food, and dancing all culminating in Simchat Torah this Thursday night and Friday, we shake our lulav and etrog, triumphant in our judgment from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

The accusing angel tries everything to convince G-d that we shouldn’t be blessed for a good year.¬† But we know that G-d wants to give us all of the blessings He can.

Perhaps we are meant to rejoice in the fact that we are alive.  We will not live in fear or lose control.  We will celebrate who we are.  We will dance and be happy with our G-d and our Torah!

May those who were personally affected by last week’s shooting find comfort and healing.¬† And may all of us see an end to tragedy and suffering with the coming of moshiach, now!

Good Yuntif!
~Rabbi Yossi



In fact, we took two!  On the High Holidays, we got on our knees and then prostrated ourselves before G-d during the prayer service.  What a tremendous experience.

Other days of the year, we simply bow, but on these days, we actually get on the ground.  Why?

Because it is truly humbling.¬† When you bow, even though you are showing humility and respect, you are still standing up.¬† It’s like saying, “I’m me and you’re you but I will accept your will.”¬† To prostrate yourself, you get the feeling that there is no “I” in the picture.¬† There’s just G-d.

Now that we’ve spent the last week and a half crowning G-d as king, turning our hearts to Him and asking forgiveness for our transgressions, we can rest assured that we’ve been blessed with a good and sweet year.¬† It’s time to celebrate.

Get up off your knees!  Dance on Sukkot, shake your lulav and etrog!  Rejoice in our relationship with the Creator!

Our Mother


I hope you all had an uplifting and inspiring Rosh Hashana. ¬†Here in Oswego, my sons and I walked for miles to blow shofar for those who couldn’t make it to services. ¬†They were so happy to walk through town and meet some of the Jewish community that we don’t always get to see as much as we’d like.

This Tuesday is the 6th of Tishrei, the yortzeit (anniversary of the passing) of Rebbitzin Chana, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mother. ¬†She was a woman who had such tremendous self sacrifice for Torah and mitzvot.

There’s a famous story of her devotion to G-d when her husband, the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, had no ink with which to write his Torah thoughts and commentaries. ¬†Rebbetzin Chana would go out to pick berries, mash them and make homemade ink out of them in order that words of Torah could be written.

It is customary during the week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to take on a mitzvah in which you are not normally careful. It doesn’t have to be making homemade ink to write down Torah thoughts or exiling yourself like the Rebbe’s parents. ¬†Perhaps it’s putting on tefillin or keeping kosher. ¬†Maybe it’s giving more tzedakah or praying more.

Whatever it is, you’ll be keeping in the spirit of those like Rebbetzin Chana who’ve given so much to and for the Jewish people. ¬†You’ll be in great company!

G’mar chasima tova!
May you be completely sealed for good!
~Rabbi Yossi

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