Musings and Schmoozings

Burlington. 1975.

The year was 1975.

A young couple, driven by the Rebbe’s dream of reaching out with love to each and every Jew, moved to Burlington, VT. Burlington of the 70’s was (and still is) a tiny Jewish community, but with a vibrant college campus, UVM.

Shortly after moving in, the young Rabbi and his wife ‘plastered’ the campus with flyers about a Jewish group that was forming, and inviting the Jewish students to its inaugural event. Full of youthful enthusiasm, their dream was met with a rabbi’s worst nightmare--only one student showed. 

 (Believe me, it’s worse than no one showing!)

Disappointing, sure. But this was only but the first of the many souls that were illuminated over the two and a half years that this young couple served the community before the young rabbi tragically passed away in 1978.

In only a few short years, this young Rabbi, who was legally blind and therefore unable to drive, and who would walk miles in the snow to visit hospitals – reached out and changed the lives of so many people in so short a time. His young wife was his partner in their selfless work, amid the sacrifices of living in a small and isolated Jewish community. She too selflessly dedicated herself to the students and community without fanfare.

Who was the solitary student who attended that ‘disastrous’ first event?

Rabbi Fishel Jacobs. Then a Tae Kwon Doe champion, and headed to the ’76 Summer Olymics. Today, he is a prominent Rabbi, noted author and posek, and someone who continues to touch the lives of others, as his life was touched by this young Rabbi in Vermont.

Who was the Rabbi?

My father, Rabbi Shmuel Hecht, a”h, whose 36th Yarzeit is this Shabbat, and whose legacy continues in the work that we do here.

Please join me this Shabbat for a Kiddush and Lunch that I am sponsoring together with Mike Haines who is visiting from Israel. We will say L’chaim and reflect on the power and impact on one small encounter, and one small mitzva.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht
Chabad of Sunnyvale


The newly-married couple is eating their Shabbat meal together. The husband asks his wife, “Nu Sarah, when are going to start making Challah like your mother?”

The quick-witted wife responds, “When you start making dough like your father!”

Pashat Mishpatim, which immediately follows the giving of the Ten Commandments, deals principally with torts and simple civil-type laws. Talk about a let-down! We walk off the ethereal precipice of Mt. Sinai, the singularly most elevated Jewish experience, into the seeming lowly abyss of litigation, liability, criminality and negligence – among other very ordinary laws.  Aside for those lawyer types, this seems sort of…ordinary.

In fact, consider this:  The Parsha open with the words, “ And these are the statues…  "ואלה המשפטים. Apparently, with the Hebrew letter ‘Vav’ which means ‘and’, the Torah views our reading as a direct continuation of the last week’s Parsha and the Ten Commandments? How is that possible?

Rashi answers, “Just as those [the Ten Commandments] are from Sinai, so too these [the laws of this portion] are from Sinai.”

The Chassidic masters explain that there is a profound message here. Every aspect of our lives, even the day-to-day business and social interactions, should be totally suffused with divine purpose. It is not enough us to be “religious” by observing rituals, while leaving the rest to subjective and easily obfuscated human morality. Be ‘religious’ about paying employees and refraining from gossiping too.   

Let us make our dough into Challah. Let us live our business and personal lives with an integrity borne of a divine sense of purpose. Enjoy the Challah!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht  


Dirt. The politicians sling it, the kids track it into our house all over the carpet, and we all trample on it. Dirt is not a desirous thing.

Yet, one of the first things that the Jewish were commanded following the Ten Commandments in this week’s Parsha, was the Mitzva they should have an earth-filled altar when the tabernacle would later be built.

Why an earth-filled altar, and why does this mitzvah land in the prime real-estate of several verses after the Ten Commandments?

Dirt, explain the kabbalists, represents the inanimate; the cold lifeless aspects of our life. Apathy and overall coarseness. However, on a higher level, when we use our willpower and determination to overcome these challenges, we have achieved a humble and lofty service of G-d.  This service represents our struggle and toil to bring life and meaning, warmth and vitality into the world we live in.  

The altar in the temple was not placed on pillars of marble – by Torah law it must be placed on terra firma. Our service of G-d begins with the simple struggles of life, and from there it rises. There are no ‘Ivory Tower altars’ in the Temple. Only altars built on bedrock of courage and willpower, Mizbeach Adama – Earth-filled Altars.

This past Shabbat, we mourned the loss of Ariel Sharon z”l, the former Prime Minister of Israel. Arik Sharon was an accomplished citizen and soldier who sacrificed much for the defense of Israel. Prickly as a Sabra, he was called “The Bulldozer” -- both by his admirers and his detractors.

But all agree that Ariel Sharon z”l did what he felt was right, and to that end he was undeterred. He was a bulldozer. Nothing would stand in the way of what he identified as the right thing for Israel. He was an earthmoving bulldozer, a man of extreme dedication and will.

In the context of our parsha, let us learn a lesson. How many of us have set goals, but never realized them? How many of us have tried to build lofty dreams, but never got them off the ground? Let us build our lives, our living altar to G-d, with strong will and determination, with self-sacrifice and with love for Eretz Yisrael and for Am Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht

For more about Ariel Sharon and his relationship with the Rebbe, click here.


As the vortex of cold barreled across the United States this past week, bringing with it frigid temperatures not seen in decades—something quite unusual nearly happened. The thunderous Niagra Falls was nearly solidly frozen.

[I later found out this picture was an old picture that was recycled on the internet--RYH]

In this parsha, Parshat B’shalach, we read about the Jewish People’s flight from Egypt. With Pharoah and his cronies hot in pursuit at the rear, the Sea of Reeds at the fore, and endless desert on either side – the Jews were ‘up a creek without a paddle’.

The Midrash tells of a spirited argument between the Jews at time. What should we do? Pray, Fight, Suicide, Flight… What ‘s a Jew to do?

Which reminds me of the famous joke: The president of a shul is on a plane which is going down. The pilot, after issuing his mayday call, gets on the PA systems and calls out, “Everyone, do something religious!”

The president rises and makes…an appeal.

What is G-d’s answer according to the Midrash? Daber el Bnai Yisrael V’Yisaoo. Tell the Jewish people to go! Straight into the obstacle, travel on despite the way it seems. Nachshon leads the charge, and when the sea reached his neck, the waters parted.

In life, we are faced with cruel and cold harsh realities. When faced with these so-called ‘truths’ we tend to freeze in place, unable to move, no longer flowing with any vigor, unable to make it over the edge. We remain stiff, frozen with indecision.

The message from G-d : The obstacle is what we make it into. Look beyond the challenge, and the challenge will melt before you. Like a martial artist breaking bricks, not focusing on the bricks, but rather forcing his hand to a point beyond his obstacle—so too in our lives. Look past the obstacle, and you will overcome it.  

We should note that despite the record setting cold, Niagra Falls never did totally freeze. Though slowed down dramatically, Niagra persisted to flow. The cynical and cold world is no match again the warmth of Torah and Judaism.

This Shabbat we commemorate the Yarzeit of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe TZ”L, and the day that ‘Our Rebbe’, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ZT”L,  assumed the leadership of the Chabad movement.  

If there ever was a precarious moment in Jewish History, it was the Jewish scene into which the Rebbe emerged as a Jewish leader. Assimilation, post-holocaust demoralization, apathy, intermarriage -- were some of the challenges that he faced. Many predicted the end of Judaism. The Rebbe, ignoring the forces of cynicism, ignited the frozen horizon with positivity and action, with hope and with love. He inspired us to invigorate the frozen world that he inherited and made it a much warmer and more spiritual world.

May we be a little more like Nachshon, a little more like the Rebbe. May each action that we do warm our environment, and make the world a little brighter, a little warmer.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht

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