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Do You Hear, or Do You Listen?

Thursday, April 10, 2014 - 10:55 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Matzoh-Matzah-Matzo-Passover2008.jpgMy five-year-old son likes to climb onto the kitchen counter and hang out there. Each time he does it, I take him down and explain that he could hurt himself. But no matter how many times I tell him it's dangerous, the very next day (or next hour!) he's climbs right back up. 

Until this week. 

You see, last week, when he climbed onto the counter, he actually fell and hurt himself. Since then, he hasn't done it. And it's pretty easy to understand why. 

When I explain the dangers, he hears, but doesn't listen. He doesn't absorb and internalize what I'm saying. But when he actually falls and experiences the danger, now he understands. 

In truth, we are all like my little five-year-old.

I had lunch with a group of four people last week, and they asked me to share some words of Torah. I spoke about gossip and explained that gossip is considered as severe as the three cardinal sins - murder, idolatry and adultery. We discussed the topic for close to 20 minutes. 

Shockingly, just minutes later one of the people started sharing a juicy story about someone in his community, and they gossiped for the next 40 minutes. I couldn't understand it. We'd just finished discussing the severity of gossip, yet here they are gossping? 

When I was in yeshiva, my mentor, Rabbi Zalman Gopin, often said, "If you come to hear you will not be affected, but if you come to listen you will absorb.”

That's what happened at the lunch. Everyone heard, but no one listened. They didn't internalize it. It's natural. We hear hundreds of conversations daily, but we don't actively listen and internalize most of them. 

But Judaism is different. It needs to be absorbed. When we hear words of Torah, we need to absorb what we are hearing. We need to actively listen and contemplate. Only then, can we truly understand and internalize what we have learned. 

We're about the celebrate the beautiful, joyous holiday of Pesach - the time of our freedom. When we sit at the Seder, we're not just marking a historical event that occurred over 3000 years ago. We're experiencing and celebrating our current freedom in the 21st century. 

When we sit at the Seder next week, and recite the entire Haggadah, let's make sure we actively listen so we can absorb its messages. Let's experience modern-day freedom, liberated from all enslavement, physical and spiritual. 

We are instructed, “Remember the day that you left Egypt every single day of your life.” 

Don’t just hear these words, listen to them!

May we celebrate together, in Jerusalem. 

Igor, will you please call Nancy?

Thursday, April 03, 2014 - 9:41 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler


A couple of days before Purim I noticed one of my Facebook friends had posted, "There are 25 Purim parties to choose fromon Saturday night. Which one should I go to?" Thus began a long conversation where she and her friends discussed the merits of each party, trying to come to a decision. Judging by the end of the Facebook discussion, they failed to reach a consensus. 

Reading their conversation, I was reminded of an incident  that began a few months ago. 

Nancy* has been attending Chabad Israel Center events and parties for a number of years, and we've become well acquainted. Igor* was a shul regular, and I felt the two of them might be a good match. 

I phoned Igor and asked if he was currently dating. He was not. "Would you like me to suggest someone?" I asked. He agreed, so I told him a bit about Nancy. He asked me multiple questions about her. What does she look like? How old is she? What does she do? Where is she from? Is she kind hearted? What's her personality like? I passed his "interrogation" and he agreed that Nancy sounded like she might be a good match for him. 

So I phoned Nancy and had a similar conversation. She also had many questions and criteria, but agreed that I could pass along her phone number. I gave Igor her number and told him she was expecting his call. 

The next day I messaged Igor, "Did you call her yet?" 

He texted back, "Not yet, but I will." 

Two weeks later in shul I checked in with him. He still hadn't called!

The following day I messaged him, "Call right now. I'm stopping everything and waiting for you to call her." I also told Nancy to message me when he calls. 

The next day Nancy told me Igor had called when she was in a meeting and she'd texted him to call her back that night. He responded that he would.  

A week later I checked in with Igor and he said Nancy was going to call him back after the meeting and he was waiting for her call! So I asked Nancy what happened, and she took a screen shot of the text message and sent it to me. It stated clearly that Igor was going to call her. 

It was time for a very frank conversation with Igor, with whom I am very close. 

"I don't understand," I told him. "You've told me so many times how important it is for you to get married, how desperately you want to settle down and establish a Jewish family, how proud your parents would be... I finally thought of a match for you, and you agreed that it sounded promising. You're so successful in business, and when it comes to chasing a client you know exactly what to do. I've seen you in action. You once called one of our shul members four times in one day until they answered you! You are so smart, but when it comes to dating, you're acting so stupidly! I'm not G-d, I don't know if she's your soul mate, but can't you give her a proper phone call?!"

"Don't worry, Rabbi, I'm on it," he said. 

 It's now three months later and Igor still hasn't called Nancy... 

Why? Perhaps because, like the 25 parties on Saturday night, he feels there are too many girls to choose from. Too many dates. What to do? How to choose?

Isn't this the story of our lives?

We are about to celebrate Pesach, the holiday marking our exodus from Egypt. Egypt in Hebrew is "Mitzrayim." Another meaning of the word is limitations, or constraints. We all have our fair share of "issues" which hinder us from accomplishing what we desire, whether in business, marriage, dating etc. The holiday of Pesach is when we are empowered to break free of our shackles and limitations and go out and master what we've been trying to do. 

So, Igor, please, in honor of Pesach, pick up the phone and call Nancy!


*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Is This the "Modeh Ani" Doctor?

Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 10:23 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Blog.jpgThis past weekend I spent Shabbat in Brooklyn with all my siblings. My brother was celebrating his son's bar mitzvah, and my siblings all flew in for the occasion. With nine siblings spread out across the globe, it's hard to get together often, and the last time we were all together was five years ago at another family celebration.

At Friday night dinner we were all eager to share stories and catch up with each other. My oldest brother, Dr. Mordechai Vigler, is chief of hand surgery at Rabin Medical Center, Hasharon campus in Israel. He shared this story with us:

A woman came to see him with her four-year-old son. She was Jewish, but not observant.

She had been experiencing severe pain in one of her hands, and she noted that the pain was always worse in the morning.

My brother asked her, "Is the pain worse after you wash hands and say modeh ani?"

The woman looked confused, so my brother explained to her that as Jews, the first thing we do in the morning is recite modeh ani, thanking G-d for allowing us to wake up and experience another day.

The consultation continued and my brother diagnosed her and then she and her four-year-old left. The entire consultation was probably less than five minutes, because there were another 60 patients waiting! 

Six months down the line, this woman returned for a follow-up visit. Again, her four-year-old son was with her. As soon as the child saw my brother, he asked his mother, "Is this themodeh ani doctor?

I was incredulous. My brother had only spent a few minutes with this woman, and the comment about modeh ani only took up a fraction of that time. And to top it off, that visit had been a full six months earlier! But this young boy had been reciting modeh ani every morning for the last six months, all because of this one casual encounter with the doctor who mentioned G-d. Wow!

In this week's parshah we read about the sin of lashon hara - slander. We are told that when a person slanders, it's as if 3 people are killed: the person who speaks, the person who listens and the person about whom they are speaking. Such is the power of speech!

If negative speech is so powerful, imagine what an impact a positive word, thought or experience can have. A single positive encounter can change a person's life. 

Let's make sure to focus on speaking positively; together we can change the world. 

How Can A Plane Just Disappear?

Friday, March 21, 2014 - 12:11 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler


malaysia_airlines_1024x.jpgFor close to two weeks, we've been watching the news about missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 with bated breath. Despite many theories, from pilot suicide to hijacking, we still have no concrete idea what happened to the airplane, and its passengers. It seems to have simply vanished.

Twenty-six countries are involved in the massive international search. It is the largest search in aviation history, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Air-travel is considered the safest mode of transport, and this was a Boeing 777 - the safest passenger aircraft! So, understandably, this incident has been highly unsettling. For a plane this size to disappear without a trace is virtually unprecedented. 

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the 239 individuals on board the aircraft. 

What can we learn from the massive search?

Chassidic masters liken the ocean to the “hidden worlds.” Inside its murky depths is an entire world: mountains and canyons, rivers and weather systems, and living organisms of every type and form imaginable. But everything is submerged within its watery depths, almost completely hidden from inquisitive eyes

This is a parable for spirituality and G-dliness. When we look around at our physical and mundane world, we do not see G-d. In fact, often His involvement is so hidden that we even question His existence. When something goes wrong in our lives we think that G-d does not truly exist. We see the sun rising every morning and the moon taking its place at night. We see tall mountains, majestic rivers and beautiful buildings, but what's missing from the picture is G-d. He is lost in this beautiful natural world. This is like looking at the surface of the sea and not seeing anything beyond.

But just as we discover an entire world and ecosystem if we look beneath the ocean's surface, so will we find an additional dimension to the physical world if we probe deeply enough. This is our mission in life - to search for and uncover G-d's involvement in the physical world. 

Millions of dollars are being poured into the search for flight 370. Over 25 countries have contributed ships, planes and satellite imaging to assist with the search. The search area is enormous - millions of miles. 

This is what we ought to be doing on a daily basis. Search! Search! Search! Searching for the G-dliness and spirituality in our lives, and finding ways to reveal it. 

When we make a blessing over food, we are drawing G-dliness into the steak that we are eating. When we give a dollar to charity, we plant a spark of G-dliness inside that dollar bill. When we visit someone in the hospital, we are bringing G-d along for the ride.

The name of this week's Torah portion, Shemini, means "eight." Seven represents the natural cycle of the world. There are seven days in the week. A mourner mourns for seven days. When a person gets married there are seven days of festivity. Eight, however, represents the supra-natural; the G-dly. Our role, our mission in life, is to search for the "eight," identify it and uncover it. 

So let's get to work and start searching! 

Chopped Liver Gave My Friend Food Poisoning

Thursday, March 13, 2014 - 9:47 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Chopped_Liver.jpgMy good friend Ilan* phoned me last week with a very serious question. 

"Rabbi," he said, "I've never kept kosher in my life; I didn't grow up in a kosher household. But when I attended your services this past Rosh Hashanah, I felt very moved, and resolved to make an effort to keep kosher.

"Today I had a lunch meeting with a Jewish client, and I figured a kosher restaurant would accomplish two mitzvot - I would keep kosher and my client would also eat a kosher meal. So that's what I did. We went to a kosher restaurant in Midtown and I ordered classic gefilte fish, followed by chopped liver. 

"In all honesty, it was difficult, because: a) it's much easier to find a non-kosher restaurant nearby, b) I find non-kosher food better tasting, and c) certainly kosher food is more expensive. But hey, we all know it's not easy being a Jew, so I bit the bullet and did it anyway!" 

"That's fantastic!" I told him. "So what's your question?"

"In one of your sermons," he explained, "you spoke about the difference between a mitzvah and a sin. Both have an 'oy' and an 'ahhh,' the difference is in the timing. When you sin, the 'ahhh' (i.e. enjoyment) comes first, and only afterwards do you feel 'oy' - what did I do?! But when it comes to a mitzvah, first you feel the 'oy vey', this is so difficult. But afterwards, you feel the 'ahhh' - the pleasure of knowing you did the right thing.

"Well," Ilan continued, "I had my 'oy' moment while doing the mitzvah. It was difficult for me - out of the way and expensive - but I did it regardless. Then later, when I was supposed to feel the 'ahhh' moment, I was suffering from severe food poisoning, holed up in the bathroom for hours. It was terrible! (And my client, who also ate the chopped liver, suffered the same fate.) I was in sheer agony, and all because of that chopped liver! I could have eaten in a non-kosher restaurant and saved myself all this trouble. Why must I suffer for doing a mitzvah?!"

My first thought was, Didn't he get the memo? Sushi is the new chopped liver. We Jews haven't eaten the real stuff since Egypt-times! 

But what I ultimately told Ilan was, "I have no idea. Yes, I am a rabbi, but I am not a prophet. I have no idea why your mitzvah ended in painful food poisoning. But what I can do, is assure you that your mitzvah counts, and G-d will most certainly reward you. 

"Our finite minds cannot comprehend His ways. Perhaps he already rewarded you. It's possible there was some heavenly decree in store for you, and because you went out of your way to keep kosher, Hashem lifted the decree. Perhaps you were destined to lose a lot of money or a big client that day, but instead you were gifted with a bout of food poisoning. We do not know His calculations, but rest assured, your mitzvah was not ignored or overlooked." 

We're about to celebrate the holiday of Purim - the most joyous day on the Jewish calendar. During the times of Mordechai and Esther, the Jews were under threat of annihilation every single day. For 11 months Haman's decree hovered over them. Interestingly, the megillah, which records the story of Purim, is the only book of the Torah where G-d's name is not mentioned. During the entire 11 months that the story of Purim played out, G-d was hidden. He was there, orchestrating, but in a hidden fashion. Only after Haman was killed, did it become clear that G-d had been guiding them and helping them every step of the way.  

We look forward to the day when we will see G-d in a revealed and obvious fashion. Even though we've been waiting for thousands of years, we believe that Moshiach will come any day now and pluck us out of exile. When Moshiach arrives, we'll enter a new era - one in which we will see how everything G-d has done for us, was ultimately for our benefit. May that day come very quickly! Until then, however, we just have to continue doing mitzvot and believe that everything He does is for our benefit. 

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Ukrainian Jewry Needs Our Help

Wednesday, March 05, 2014 - 10:56 pm
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

352930_Ukrainian-soldiers.jpgIn 1999, I was a 19-year-old Yeshiva student, studying in Israel. I heard that Chabad in Ukraine was seeking volunteers to lead public Passover Seders in assorted communities throughout the country, and I immediately volunteered. I was young, full of energy, and excited to embark on this new and different mission. I travelled with approximately 30 other students, and we were looking forward to spreading the warmth of Judaism in a foreign country. 

Looking back, I was also very naive. Coming from South Africa, I was used to living in a large house, with a swimming pool and three maids. Suddenly, I found myself in the city of Shepetivka, population 40,000, including 200 Jews, where indoor plumbing and electricity were either non-reliable or non-existent. Our bathroom was outdoors and we had hot water for only one hour per day. On the eve of Passover, the electricity shut down and we had to draw water from a well. 

To put it simply, I was homesick. I missed the Seders at home, with my family, and I missed the modern conveniences I had been raised with. I was lonely and miserable and couldn't wait for the holiday to end. 

I didn't understand why I was there; I didn't even share a language with the 200 local Jews! What were we accomplishing? What value did our Seder have to these Jews? 

This week, I found my answer. 

The world has been watching the political situation in Ukraine very closely. Vladimir Putin sent troops to invade Crimea and Ukraine is mobilizing its army as a result. This is the biggest crisis since the end of the Cold War. The region is tense and other countries are watching closely to see how things will play out. And all of this upheaval, was brought about arguably by a single act of a young Ukrainian protester. 

After civil unrest erupted, then-president, Victor Yanukovych and opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko signed an agreement to end the protests and hold a new, democratic election. But one individual, Volodymyr Parasiuk, made an impromptu speech, rallying the protesters and convinced them not to settle. The rest is history. Yanukovych was forced to flee and an urgent state of unrest continues.

Judaism teaches that the power of goodness is infinitely greater than the power of evil. If a single act can bring Ukraine and Russia to the brink of war, imagine how much more a single mitzvah can reverberate throughout the world.  

That's what I accomplished that Passover. I remember the Seder clearly. I didn't speak a single word of Ukrainian, and my translator apparently didn't understand a word of English! But the basics, we were able to communicate. When it was time to eat matzah, everyone ate matzah. When it was time to drink wine, everyone drank wine. And everyone understood that we were there to celebrate the freedom of the Jews. So, 200 Ukrainian Jews had a Seder that year. That's what I accomplished. 

Fast forward 15 years to 2014 and Judaism in the Ukraine is flourishing. 

Ukraine is home to 450,000 Jews, including 170 rabbis serving 154 communities. This impressive network boasts 49 educational centers, 7 orphanages and 32 soup kitchens, as well as synagogues, mikvahs and community centers. 

However, the Jewish population of Ukraine is currently living in real fear. The economy has collapsed and business has come to a standstill. 

Chabad is at the forefront of caring for the Ukranian Jewish community during this crisis. Despite the real danger, rabbis and their families are selflessly leading their communities, providing a comforting shoulder, emergency aid and inspiration in these trying times. 

Today, more than ever, they need our support. Please click here to donate and help the Jews in Ukraine. 

We know how much power a single act can have; how much it can accomplish. We may be far from Ukraine physically, but we have two mitzvot which can significantly help our brethren there: tzeddakah (charity) and prayer.

So let's take a minute to send a contribution, and pray for  the safety and wellbeing of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. Do that one good deed that will bring nuclear powers to peace and usher in the era of Moshiach.

Oh, So Your Texting Does Work?

Thursday, February 27, 2014 - 9:33 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Blog.jpgI have a friend who I text from time to time. Mysteriously, he never, ever responds. 

"Can you make it to our Sunday morning services? We really need you for the minyan." 

No response.

"Can you join us for a Torah class on Tuesday night?"

No response.

"We need a pair of hands to set up for our Purim party, are you available?" 

No response.

"Got an hour to help us get our sukkah up?"

No response. 

Now, it's fine if someone can't, or doesn't want to, help out. But most people at least text back to let me know. To just completely ignore me? Who does that?!

So I confronted him. 

"I don't understand, Rabbi," he said. "There must be something wrong with my phone. I haven't received any of your texts!"

Hmm... this guy has the brand new Iphone 5, with all the latest apps, and it works perfectly in every other way except getting my texts? So I continued texting him, and he maintained his silence.  

Then, this past Friday afternoon, I was completely astounded (shocked! astonished! flabbergasted!)  to receive a text message from this very same friend. Suddenly, his text messaging system is working flawlessly... and at such a convenient time - right when he needed something. Ha. Mystery solved. 

Such is the story of our lives. When G-d wants something from us, we are nowhere to be found. We have all kinds of excuses, and we convince ourselves that even the ludicrous ones sound plausible. But when we need G-d, all our excuses fall by the wayside and we are suddenly ready, willing and able to reach out. 

It's like the young man who dreamed of heaven. An angel was showing him around a large workroom, staffed by angels. 

First they stopped at the Receiving Station. Here, all prayers and petitions to G-d are received. There were rolls and rolls of paper, from all over the world. Dozens of angels scurried about, organizing and sorting. 

Further along, they reached the Packaging and Delivery section. This is where the blessings are packaged and delivered to the people who asked for them. Like the previous area, this station was extremely busy. Dozens of angels worked feverishly to get the blessings back to Earth. 

The last station was at the very back of the room. Unlike the first two, this one was practically deserted. A single angel sat there idly. "This is the Acknowledgement station," my guide explained. "Unfortunately, after people receive the blessings they seek, very few send back appreciation and acknowledgement." 

In this week's Torah portion we read about the Tabernacle, which was finally ready for the Divine Presence to rest within. Today, we no longer have the Tabernacle, or the Temple. We have no physical sanctuary at all. But every day, with each good deed that we do, we work towards building the third and final Holy Temple. This is what we can do for G-d on a daily basis. 

Let's remember to acknowledge and thank G-d for the beauty and goodness in our lives. Of course, we can turn to him when we are in need, too. But let's not wait until then. Let's start right now, with gratitude and appreciation. 

My Car is Stuck in the Snow

Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 9:33 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

new-york-snow_1794308i.jpgThe East Coast has gotten more than its fair share of snow, ice, sleet and freezing rain this winter. So far, it has snowed 55.6 inches, making it one of the snowiest New York winters on record. 

At the Chabad Israel center we have a car that is used by assorted people for assorted errands. So it was only a matter of time before winter interfered with our vehicle. On Friday afternoon, one of our staff members tried to park the car on 3rd Avenue, and ran into a snow bank. Getting onto it was no problem, but getting off was an entirely different story. 

By the time I arrived on the scene, at least five kind strangers were standing around trying to help. One guy even brought a pot of boiling water which we tried pouring onto the snow to melt it, but to no avail. The car refused to budge. 

Had it been a regular weekday, it would have been annoying, but slightly easier to deal with. But this happened on a Fridayafternoon and I needed the car to run some errands before Shabbat. I didn't have time for this mess!

Alas, it quickly became apparent that the car was firmly embedded in the snow. 

In fact, the snow was actually a block of pure ice coated in a thin layer of snow. So we spent two hours chipping away at the ice, bit by bit. Finally, I was able to drive!

The Baal Shem Tov taught that we should search for meaning in every situation. So as I stood there on Friday, sweating and chipping away at the ice, I began thinking. 

In this week's Torah portion we read about the Tabernacle, a sanctuary for G-d, which the Jews constructed in the desert. It was to be a spiritual haven, a place for G-d to "reside" in the physical world. 

Today, we no longer have the Tabernacle or Temple, but our sages explain that there is a sanctuary for G-d inside each and every one of us. Our soul, should be a place where G-d can rest and feel at home. 

As we navigate through life, it's all too easy to get "stuck in the snow" and become numb to spirituality. We become so wrapped up in our physical surroundings and responsibilities that we no longer feel the warmth of Judaism. 

And that leads to apathy. We are simply not motivated to do anything beyond our comfort zone.  We become immobilized by the icy coldness that has crept up on us. 

That's when we realize we must do something about it. We cannot continue living in a frozen stupor! It's time to start chipping away at the ice and snow until we can feel our souls once more. 

How do we accomplish that? By doing one Mitzvah at a time. Each time we give tzeddakah, light Shabbat candles, pray, help an elderly person, say a blessing on kosher food or do a multitude of other mitzvot, we are chipping away at the ice, and allowing the warmth inside our soul to emanate. 

It took two hours to dig out my car. If the icy buildup around our souls has been accumulating for a while, it may take some time to recapture the warmth we know Judaism has to offer. But it's worth every minute. 

Snow or No Snow?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 7:25 pm
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

think-positive-positive-things-will--large-msg-135567951702.pngWhen the Jewish month of Adar begins, we are supposed to increase in joy. To that end, we flew in Israeli comedian, Ori Chizkiya, to perform at our Chabad center. 

We planned every detail meticulously. We rented an auditorium in a prestigious private school on Fifth Avenue and made sure we had everything we needed with regards to acoustics and stage lighting. 

Thank G-d, tickets were selling well. In fact, they were selling too well! A full week before the show we were completely sold out. All 400 tickets sold and accounted for. Still more people wanted to join and were upset to hear there were no tickets left. “Doesn’t Chabad accept everybody?” they wanted to know. “We don’t need seats, we’ll stand!” 

The day before the event I called the school to confirm a couple of details and the principal told me, “You know, Rabbi, there’s a major snowstorm headed our way…” 

“Oh, that’s no problem,” I answered. “We’re used to storms. We don’t cancel events. In fact, last year we had a beautiful Shabbat dinner with over 250 people in the midst of a snowstorm!” 

“Well, you may not cancel if there’s a snowstorm,” she said, “but we may cancel if there’s no school. No school, no show.” 

“But what about our show? We have a contract! Can’t you open just for us?” I begged.

“Absolutely not.” 

At this point, we began to panic. I phoned numerous auditoriums in Manhattan, and understandably most of them couldn’t schedule anything on such short notice. Finally, I found one place, a beautiful venue, willing to take us, but at four times the price! And they were pressuring me for an immediate answer since it was already the end of the day. 

I was torn. I’ve been living in New York for long enough to know that when the weather report says, “Severe alert! 100% chance of snow,” that’s exactly what will happen. So, if I cancel the show, I lose lots of money because I still need to pay the comedian’s cancellation fee and refund all the tickets. If I take the new venue, it’s considerably more expensive and very late notice. What if people don’t check their email and go to the wrong place? Two very un-ideal options!

Our Chassidic masters taught a revolutionary concept – “Think good and it will be good.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that positive thinking generates positive outcomes. With that in mind, I decided to think good thoughts and stick with the current plan – having the event at the school auditorium. 

I told everyone who called that night the show would be going on as planned, in the private school. When people asked, “What about the snow?” I answered, “Think good and it will be good.”

I was up all night, making sure to think positive thoughts, and obsessively checking the weather reports to see how bad the storm would be. Finally, at 6am, the mayor’s office announced that public schools would be open. 

I was still unsure, though, because our event was to take place in a private school, and a number of other schools were closed. Finally, at 11:30am I got an email that we were definitely on for the show! 

“Think good and it will be good” is something we need to internalize and live with every day, no matter what challenges and obstacles we face. With a positive attitude, we can overcome almost anything! 

My best friend Ringo

Wednesday, February 05, 2014 - 7:20 pm
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

budweiser-puppy-love.jpgIf you had the attention of 100 million people, for a full 30 seconds, what would you say? What message would you try to convey?

Sunday's Super Bowl was the most-watched television event in U.S. history, with 111.5 million viewers. Companies were willing to pay $4 million to get their attention! 

So what was their message?

The Budweiser "Puppy Love" ad won by a landslide. 

Growing up in South Africa, we always had dogs. We had a big house with a huge garden and we kept them mostly for protection against burglars. My favorite dog, Ringo, was a German shepherd who was fiercely loyal and highly intelligent. We used to joke that he must have a Jewish soul because he would sit for hours listening to us sing at the Shabbat table, and his favorite food was cholent! It was easy to love Ringo. He slept in our house and was an all-around good dog. 

Because of my love of dogs, and Ringo in particular, I completely understood why "Puppy Love" was the most popular Super Bowl commercial. 

Puppies represent unconditional love. I often meet people who tell me they can't get along with their spouse but their puppy is a true friend who loves them unconditionally. I get it. Ringo did that for me. He never argued or criticized or yelled or cursed. Whether I was in a good mood, or a lousy one, he was always there, always attentive, accepting and loving. 

This week's parshah also discusses unconditional love. Just not the puppy type. 

When Moses descends from Mount Sinai, he sees the Jewish people worshipping the golden calf. They have betrayed G-d, one of the worst things they could possibly do. Just 40 days earlier they had entered into a marriage-like relationship with G-d, and already they're cheating?!

G-d wanted to destroy the Jewish people and begin a new nation from Moses. But Moses declines. He said, "G-d, if you destroy them, wipe my name from Your Torah." The most precious thing in his life was the Torah, but he was ready to give it up for the people he had led from Egypt. 

Ultimately, G-d listened and forgave the Jewish people. 

But there remains one parshah which does not contain Moses's name - Tetzaveh, this week's Torah portion. Because he said, "If you destroy them, erase me from Your Torah," G-d removed his name from this one parshah, which, interestingly, is usually read around the time of his yahrtzeit. 

This is a clear illustration of Moses's essence: Unconditional love for his people. 

Moses's love for the Jewish people was entirely different from puppy love. Dogs love us because they don't really know us. They don't know our weaknesses, our foibles. But Moses knew the Jewish people intimately. He knew what a terrible sin they'd committed. He knew they'd been complaining virtually  non-stop since leaving Egypt. But he was able to see past that. He was able to hold onto their purity and goodness and love them unconditionally. 

Moses saw the Jewish people in their darkest moments, when they embraced idolatry and rejected G-d. In fact, the golden calf was to replace not only G-d, but Moses as well. And yet, still, he did not abandon them. He loved them deeply, unconditionally, to the point of ultimate self-sacrifice. 

Let's learn from Moses and take that puppy love to a new level - unconditional love, for our family and friends. 

My Sister Put On Tefillin

Thursday, January 30, 2014 - 10:51 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 10.50.00.pngRecently, a debate has been raging about women putting on tefillin. Everyone agrees that the Torah commands men to put on tefillin daily. But if a woman wants to, can she? That's what the discussion has been about.

One of the reasons a man puts on tefillin in the morning is to connect with G-d. In fact, that's the reason for many of the mitzvot we do. The root of the word "mitzvah" is "tzavta" which means connection. When I don my tefillin, I am connecting with G-d.

And if that's the case, then my sister also put on tefillin this pastSunday.

My sister, Rebbetzin Estee Stern, travelled to New York from South Africa where she lives with her husband and four children. She flew in to attend the annual Chabad convention of women emissaries, not only as a participant, but as emcee of the grand banquet. The convention bring together 3,000 women from all over the world, and culminates in the gala banquet on Sunday night at the NYC Hilton.

I woke up on Sunday and put on my tefillin like I do every morning (except Shabbat). Now, I know my sister did not put on tefillin, but I do know that she was much more connected to G-d that day than I was!

The banquet was broadcast live, and I watched on my laptop (while watching my kids, since my wife was also at the convention). I watched my sister inspire 3,000 women with a fiery passion. I was in awe! Where does my sister get so much energy? Where is she drawing inspiration from? How does she have the ability to uplift 3,000 women? She didn't even put on tefillin today or any other day of her life! But that's where men and women differ. We men need to put on tefillin in order to connect with G-d. But women are naturally connected, much more than men. They don't need the tefillin to create that connection.

With grace and poise, she stood in front of 3,000 women and shared a story about my father. About 35 years ago, members of his community asked him, "What will be the future for South African Jewry? Should we emigrate?" There was severe violence and unrest at the time.

My father consulted the Rebbe , who answered, "They should stay and serve Hashem with joy and gladness of heart, and Hashem will help them."

My sister now shared this message with the audience. Serve G-d with joy, and gladness of heart, every single day!

Sitting at home, listening to her online, I was certainly inspired! I can only imagine how much more inspired everyone in the room must have felt.

I watched her toast l'chaim to 3,000 women. And 3,000 women raised their glasses and wished each other l'chaim. Wow! I was so proud of my baby sister.

For me, putting on tefillin is about making a daily connection with my Creator. A woman is naturally and intrinsically connected to G-d, so she doesn't require the tefillin boost of inspiration. When a woman uses her thoughts and feelings to inspire others, she is connecting to G-d in her own unique feminine outlet, which is much more profound than imitating the method of men. I saw it when my sister got up and wowed the crowd with an enthusiasm that I can only dream of.

As my sister ended off her speech, may we all merit to serve g-d with joy and happiness, and may we merit to greet Moshiach right now.

Click here to listen to my sister's speech. 

How Do I Get Out Of Jury Duty

Thursday, January 23, 2014 - 10:17 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Judge_Hammer.jpgI was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in South Africa so I hadn't even heard of jury duty until I became a U.S. citizen. Then I was told that part of my civic obligation would be to serve on a jury if called upon. Well, It took 10 years but I finally received my first court summons this week.

My first reaction was, "How do I get out of this? What a burden!" The last thing I wanted to do was get on a subway and head downtown in this freezing cold weather, spend a few days in court listening to a case and then having to give my opinion that could change a person's life."

Interestingly, this past week's Torah portion lists the criteria for being a judge. They must be, "Men of substance, G-d fearers and men of truth." Men of substance” refers to wealth. A judge must be wealthy so he cannot be bribed. “Men of truth” refers to those who keep their promises and can therefore be relied on.

I said to myself, if Moses were picking the jury today, I surely would not have qualified. So, if I'm not good enough for Moses, it must be ok for me to avoid jury duty. And I began thinking of excuses not to go.

But then I remembered that the name of this week's Torah portion is Mishpatim, which means "laws." In fact, the seventh Noahide law lists the requirement to maintain courts to provide legal recourse. And as Jews we must follow the law of the land - "Dina d'malchuta dina." This includes no cheating on taxes, no lying, no swindling - obeying the law of the land in its entirety.

So off I went, in the massive snowstorm to fulfill my mitzvah of jury duty. I arrived at the courthouse to find hundreds of other potential jurors also waiting.

Now, unlike the way Moses chose his judges, jury members are picked at random and the goal is for each jury to represent a true cross-section of society. And that's exactly what I found. There were doctors, lawyers, nurses, cab drivers, security personnel, cashiers and unemployed individuals. People from assorted races, religions and nationalities. A true representation of NYC. If only Moses could see this room..

We were reminded not to view jury duty as a burden, but as an honor and service to our country, and the procedure was outlined for us: We would be called to a specific case and if we had any bias against anybody in the court, or a personal objection to anything else in the case, we would be disqualified from serving. Likewise, if any of our friends or relatives had been involved in similar cases we were told to disqualify ourselves. If we were selected, we would not be allowed to research the case online, watch the news or read the paper, or even text our friends!  

All this and more to ensure the defendant be given a fair and unbiased trial.

The Torah, too, requires, "They must judge righteously. They may not pervert justice by taking bribes and they may not show deference to one party over another. They must pursue righteous justice."

Although the selection method may be different, the end goal is the same.

In Torah a judge has to be totally and utterly impartial, as do the jurors in our court system.

Ultimately, the case was going to take a good few days, and I was excused because we have a newborn at home, but asked to return in July.

I look forward to having a second opportunity to fulfill this important mitzvah.

Stuck Behind a Garbage Truck

Thursday, January 16, 2014 - 10:40 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

garbage.jpgAs I drove my daughter to her bus stop on the Upper East Side one morning this week, I found myself stuck behind a garbage truck. 

Normally, before I turn onto any street in the mornings, I check to see if there's a garbage truck. I hate getting stuck behind them as they slowly plod along. But on this particular morning, despite my quick check, the garbage truck outsmarted me, and what do you know - there I am inching along behind it. I tried to reverse but there were already a number of cars behind me. 

It was 8:09, one minute before she needed to be at her bus, and there was no way we would make it in time. As we crept along behind the truck, I tried calling the bus driver, but after the tenth try I realized he must have his phone off. 

I was frustrated. Very frustrated. I was in a big rush to get back to the office. I had a busy day planned without any leeway for unexpected fumbles. I had lots of important meetings scheduled, dozens of phone calls to return, emails to catch up on and people to help. But as I sat there behind the giant lumbering garbage truck, there was absolutely nothing I could do about any of it. 

So I got to thinking. 

It's at moments like these that we realize we are not in control. We may think we run our lives, we may think we're in control, but then along come these moments to show us that it's G-d in the driver's seat. 

We think we run our businesses, make successful deals and pay our employees on time. We think we're in full control of our lives - our successes and our failures - until something comes along to remind us that G-d is running the show, not us. 

In this week's Torah portion we read the first of the 10 commandments, "I am the L-rd, your G-d." According to Chassidic teaching, it specifically says "your G-d" to teach us that He is with us every step of the way, wherever we go, whichever path we take. This empowers us to search for G-d everywhere we go and in everything we do. Even as we go through our day-to-day activities, we are on the lookout for Him. 

In the end, we did miss the bus, it was long gone. But, I learned an invaluable lesson. I'd say it was worth it.

Nu, What's Taking So Long?

Thursday, January 09, 2014 - 10:58 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Split sea 1.jpgI turned on my phone in the morning only to see multiple messages reading "Nu, any news?" and "Anything happen overnight?" In fact, for the past two weeks I've been getting daily messages, emails and phone calls like these from friends and family in anticipation of the big day. 

My wife and I were expecting our 4th child, and her due date had come and gone. For some reason, this pregnancy was lasting longer than expected, and our friends and family were waiting on the good news. "Is there a mazal tov, yet?" they wanted to know. 

But the message that took the cake was from my dear sister-in-law in Israel. She had been WhatsApping me every day for two weeks straight, at which point she wrote in capital letters, "THIS IS NOT NORMAL! WHAT'S TAKING SO LONG?!"

Thank G-d, our beautiful, healthy princess was born in good time, when she was ready to come out, and not a minute sooner. We named her Shterna Sara.

In this week's Torah portion , the Jewish people's period of exile finally comes to an end, culminating at the splitting of the sea where their Egyptian oppressors drown. 

The Chassidic masters compare exile to pregnancy and redemption to birth. The suffering and persecution we experience in exile is called the "birth pangs of Moshiach," and is likened to the pain and discomfort a mother feels during pregnancy and labor. 

In the Talmud we read about Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, who fell ill, lost consciousness and came very near to death. Today, we would call it a near death experience. 

When he regained consciousness, his father asked him, "What did you see 'on the other side'?"

He responded, "I saw an upside down world. Those who are prestigious and superior and honored in this world are looked down upon the in the true world. But those appear lowly in this world are honored and respected in the true world."

His father acknowledged, "You have seen a clear world." 

Exile is the upside down world. Pregnancy is likened to exile, which is why the fetus lies upside down in the mother's womb. 

We are the ones who see an upside down world. In our world, all you need to do is check out Facebook, Twitter or any magazine to see which people are glorified and why. In the true world, these people are not the honored and admired role models; not at all! And the reasons we look up to them are completely meaningless. 

We worship and glorify the dollar bill, we idolize celebrities, we respect the wrong things. Things that are worthless in the world to come.  

In truth, we have to ask ourselves every day, "Nu, when it is happening? What's going on? Has anything changed?" We need to experience that same anticipation that my wife and I, and all our friends and family, felt about our upcoming birth. This is how we should feel about Moshiach and the redemption!  

Like my sister-in-law texted me, "THIS IS NOT NORMAL!" Our state of exile is not normal. When will we finally give birth? When will the redemption come? When will everything be right side up instead of upside down? 

The Jews in Egypt waited 210 years for their redemption. We have been waiting close to 2,000 years and we want it to end now

So, nu, when will it happen? And what can you do to hasten it?


My Biggest Moments Of 2013

Thursday, January 02, 2014 - 8:33 am
Posted by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

father son learning together.jpgThis week I noticed Facebook was prodding me to check out my "year in review." I looked closer and realized Facebook had compiled what they considered my 20 biggest moments of 2013. 

So, what were these moments? Well, the "biggest moment" was a picture of President and Michelle Obama dressed as chassidim. Why was this a great moment? Because it received the largest amount of "interaction" - i.e., likes, shares and comments. 

Likewise, the other 19 episodes of note were the next most popular posts. Essentially, Facebook was selecting my defining moments based on public reception. 

And indeed, as a society we place a lot of emphasis on publicity and popularity. The more publicity, the better! The more I had a good year, the more people are talking about me, the more people like me, and then I have an even better year... and so on and so forth. 

Pharaoh was like that, too. 

In this week's Torah portion, G-d instructed Moses to, "Come to Pharaoh." It would seem more correct to say "Go to Pharaoh," but the Zohar explains the deeper meaning behind the language. 

Moses is not simply being told to walk over and have a visit with Pharaoh. He's being instructed to confront Pharaoh's very essence, the source of evil, and he was afraid. So G-d reassured him, "Come to Pharaoh," let's go together, I'll be with you. Together we'll uncover the evil that is within Pharaoh - the ego. 

The ego is the root of evil. 

An infant is born with its fists clenched, but when we pass away, our palms are stretched out. 

The baby is making its debut into the world. It's determined to conquer and succeed. By the time a person passes on, he or she recognizes that riches and fame don't accompany us to the next world. We have only the good deeds and kindness we've done throughout our lives.

As we grow up, and progress through life, we become more and more aware of our sense of self and our ego, which is often idolized in our culture. We can all use a reminder, every now and then, like in this week's Torah portion, that the ego can lead us violently astray. 

Our greatest moments of 2013 were not the public ones; they were the ones nobody knew about or paid much attention to. 

Donate to an education foundation, you'll get lots of public credit. Leave work early to study with your child who's really stressed about her math test, and no one will know. But it counts, and counts a lot. 

Spend time after hours chasing down the information you need to make a presentation a success, you'll get lots of appreciation, maybe even a bonus. Run to the store minutes before Shabbat to get your wife the last ingredient she needs, no one will know. But you'll be getting credit with G-d, no doubt about it. 

In 2014, let's try to create lots of "greatest moments." Not the public kind. The real kind. 

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