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Walking with Lions

Blog.jpgThis week I visited a lion park in South African with my family. Having grown up in Africa, I’ve always loved wildlife and been fascinated by animals, especially the king—the lion.

This time, the park was offering a new feature—“walking with the lions.” Essentially, guests are offered the opportunity to enter the lion park and walk alongside the lions in their natural habitat for an hour or so. And these are not baby cubs, they’re fully grown beasts!

It seemed pretty dangerous, but we decided to give it a go.

We walked with the lions, watching them live their life in their own environment. We watched them eat their dinner and climb on trees. For over an hour we watched them, and we were even able to pat them.

Honestly, I was terrified. Despite my guide’s assurance that he had pepper spray and a stick in case something went wrong, I highly doubted a bit of pepper spray would be enough to save us from the rage of this powerful king of all animals if anything went wrong!

Thank G-d we emerged safe and sound and it was a beautiful and thrilling experience.

Animals and humans both have three main organs: brain, heart and liver. מוח; לב וכבד. Spelled out with the heart first it is למך and spelled with the brain first it is מלך. King.

An animal walks on all fours so its brain and heart are on the same level. A lion is ruled by its instincts.

Our guide explained that there was no danger because these lions grew up in captivity. They are tame. They have never attacked.  They are used to human beings. But the truth is that a lion can never be fully tamed because it naturally follows its instincts. Even if a lion would live its whole life amongst humans, you can never fully trust it not to kill because that is its natural instinct. That’s just what lions do.

That is the key difference between a human being and a lion. Even though we all, at times, follow our hearts and sin, we have the ability to use our brain to rule over our hearts. We have the ability to truly tame our inner animal.

We currently find ourselves in the month of Elul, the month before the high holidays. During this month, we reflect on our actions over the past year. It is a time to do teshuva—repentance. A time to reflect on our relationship with G-d, and return to Him if we have become distanced. This is the time to make sure our minds rule our hearts, so we can be melech, a king. 

R.I.P. Cecil the lion

Cecil.jpgI am one of the only Rhodesian-born Chabad rabbis in the world today. Growing up in Africa, I developed and maintain an intense love of lions. I used to, and do still, enjoy travelling to Kruger National Park where I can observe these majestic animals in their natural habitat. So I was horrified, along with the rest of the world, to discover that our beloved Zimbabwean lion Cecil was killed by American dentist Walter Palmer.

The killing, and his role in it, unleashed a torrent of anger online.

The Yelp page for his dental practice in Bloomington, Minnesota, was inundated with reviews posted by people irate over his lion hunting."Shame on you, killing a majestic creature," wrote a user named Charmie P.The website for Palmer's business, River Bluff Dental, appears to have been taken down.

Outrage continued to flow on social media with celebrities lambasting the dentist. Sharon Osbourne tweeted, "I hope that #WalterPalmer loses his home, his practice & his money. "He has already lost his soul."

Cecil wasn’t just killed. Palmer and his guides attached the carcass of a dead animal to the back of their truck and used it as bait, to lure Cecil out of Hwange National Park. When Cecil arrived on the scene, Palmer shot him with a crossbow. Palmer paid $55,000 to be able to hunt Cecil! Cecil was mortally wounded and walked off, in pain, for 40 hours, until Palmer came and shot him. He decapitated Cecil, skinned him and then left his carcass in the wild. And it doesn’t end there. Cecil’s cubs will probably be killed by the next male lion who will take over the pride.

This week, Jews worldwide fasted for 25 hours in mourning for the destruction of our two Holy Temples. It is the saddest day of the year.

The Torah describes the destruction as follows:

 “עלה אריה במזל אריה והחריב את אריאל” – A lion [Nevuchadnezzer] arose in the month of Av (who’s sign is a lion) and destroyed “the lion of G-d” —i.e., the Temple.

Walter Palmer travelled thousands of miles from his home country for a trophy kill. Nevuchadnezzer set off from his home country of Bavel in order to destroy the lion of G-d, our Temple. And, in fact, the trophy, i.e., many parts of our Holy Temple, are kept to this very day in the Vatican, in Rome (the Romans destroyed the 2nd temple).

Cecil was no ordinary lion. He was a known and beloved Zimbabwean icon and tourist attraction. His tall, majestic features earned him scores of adoring fans. He was king of the animals.

Likewise, Nevuchadnezzer did not destroy any ordinary city. He targeted Jerusalem, our home, our holiest city, king of all cities.

Cecil has been mourned throughout the entire world this week. The outcry and shock is real and palpable. We ought to learn from this outcry, to also shout out in pain, to truly feel and show our distress over the destruction of our G-dly lion, our Temple.

The Talmud explains that “A generation that has not witnessed the building of the Temple, it is considered as if the Temple was destroyed in its lifetime” Our precious lion has been destroyed. It is in shambles, and we pray and yearn for its rebuilding every single day.

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of Moshiach, and even though he my tarry, nevertheless I await his coming every day

In Conversation with an IDF Soldier

Blog.jpgLast week I had breakfast with Avi*—an IDF soldier who was wounded in last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. At a bus stop in Jerusalem, someone tapped Avi on the shoulder. When he turned around, he was facing a terrorist holding a gun and looking him in the eye. The terrorist shot him point blank three times in the abdomen. He suffered severe injuries to his internal organs, but miraculously he survived. Through sheer will and determination, Avi has been able to continue living his life, despite his immense pain and ongoing struggle.

As we chatted over breakfast, Avi confided in me that his faith and spiritual observance had decreased significantly since the attack. He told me how angry he felt with G-d, every single day, for putting him in this situation. How could G-d allow this to happen?!

He asked me to explain, and I answered truthfully, “Avi, I have absolutely no idea.”

“But you are a rabbi! What do you mean? How do you not know?”

“If I understood G-d,” I explained, “I would be G-d. Only G-d understands why He does the things He does.”

“But,” I added, “You actually believe in G-d much more so than I.”

“How is that even possible?” he asked. “You put on tefillin every day. You pray. You observe Shabbat and keep kosher. I do none of this. So what do you mean when you say I believe in Him more than you?”

“The very fact that you are angry proves you believe in Him,” I explained. “If you didn’t believe, who would you be angry with? If you didn’t have a deep and unshakable believe in G-d, you would have no one to complain about. You do, in fact, have a very real relationship with Him. You are upset that your relationship with him is not going the way it should, but believe in Him you certainly do! Yes, even more than I.”

This Sunday we mark TishaB’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day, both of our Holy Temples were destroyed and on this day, almost 2,000 years ago, we were sent into exile, where we remain. It is on this day that G-d hid himself from us, turning away so we can no longer see him.

We are bitter and angry about this long and dark exile, but despite our pain we know that G-d loves us. We trust that he will rebuild our Holy Temple and create and era of eternal peace. He will have a lot of explaining to do, when he finally sends us Moshiach, but until then, we continue to have a strong relationship with Him.

*Name changed to protect the individual’s privacy

The Signing of a Deal

Blog.jpgThis week a deal was signed.

A deal that involved intense leader negotiation.

A deal with much at stake.

A deal that aroused powerful emotion on both sides.

A deal where one side's love for Israel was challenged.

A deal where one side needed assurance that the other side would, indeed, honor the agreement.

A deal in which the entire Jewish nation felt invested.  

A deal which required painstaking negotiation, would take years to play out and could literally fall apart at any turn.

It was a deal signed over 4,000 years ago by Moses and the tribes of Gad and Menashe.  

The Jews were camped in the desert, poised to finally enter the Land of Israel, but first they needed to conquer the mighty nations living there. Two of the twelve tribes approached Moses, wanting to settle trans-Jordan. "We would rather receive our inheritance on this side of Jordan, and not enter Israel, they explained.

Moses could not understand. In fact, he was livid. "Will your brothers go to war while you simply stand by? Do you not want to enter Israel? Are you afraid? Do you not love Israel?"

The tribes reassured Moses of their love for Israel and explained that, as cattle-owners, the trans-Jordan land would be better for them.

So Moses consults with Elazar the priest, the heads of all the tribes, and Yehoshua—future leader of the Jewish nation. They all negotiate and ultimately present the two tribes with an offer: Moses will give them the land they want, but when the rest of the Jews go to conquer Israel, they will fight alongside them.

The tribes counter offer: "Not only will we fight alongside our brothers and conquer Israel but we will not leave Israel to settle our land until the entire Land of Israel has also been divided up amongst our brothers. Only then will we settle down."

Moses asked for a little, they offered more. This is how real deals are done—with mutual understanding, common ideals and each other's best interests at heart.

Close Call!

photo (1).JPGThis past Tuesday, at 12pm, we launched a 24-hour online fundraising campaign. Our goal was to raise $240,000 in 24 hours, to bring three groups of IDF soldiers to NY in 2015. We had a group of very generous backers who had agreed to match each donation that came in, which meant that each donated dollar would instantly be quadrupled.

Sounds great, right? But there's a major catch. The campaign was all or nothing. Either we raise and receive the entire sum, or we don't meet our goal and receive nothing at all.  

The goal was ambitious, but I felt confident. We were using a state of the art fundraising platform developed by the Charidy company, run by my friends Ari Shapiro and Moshe Hecht. Last year, we ran a similar campaign and succeeded in raising $200,000 within 24 hours, so I assumed this year we would be just as successful.

That was mistake number one! Never take anything for granted. Just because you do something once, does not mean you can do it again.

At exactly 12 noon we launched our campaign with blast email and Facebook messages, and the donations started trickling in. A few hours later, I realized we may have overestimated. The donations were not adding up, and we were well behind schedule. I started emailing and texting and it helped a little, but eight hours in, we had only raised 36% of our goal.

Donations trickled in overnight, but by morning we knew we were in trouble. We had only a few hours left and were not even halfway to our goal.

I wasn't the only one concerned. I received an almost constant barrage of texts and emails from family, friends and those who had already donated, asking, "What are we going to do? What is our backup plan?"

Two hours before the campaign closed and we were still way off.

With 31 minutes to go, we still needed another $40,000. Would we make it? We weren't sure.

But this is when people really came through for us, and there was a last-minute outpouring of support and donations. Whew!

Many people had initially thought their contributions weren't needed, since we met our goal relatively easily last time around. But that was not the case at all—every single person is vital!

Seeing us so close to our goal, but knowing we might forfeit the entire sum if we couldn't quite get there, our community kicked in, not wanting to let us down. With just eight seconds left, we made it over the finish line!

Why is Charidy so successful? Firstly, the 24-hour time limit. Everyone is focused on a singular goal for a short period of time, and every donation is seen in real time. But more importantly, it's a communal effort. Everyone is invested. We either all succeed, or we all fail. My success is your success, my failure is your failure.

Thank G-d, our community succeeded in making our campaign a fabulous success. Together, 245 donors helped us reach our goal. Each of those individuals helped us get there, and we are so grateful to all of you. Thank you!

This weekend, we begin the Three Weeks—the saddest time on the Jewish calendar. During these weeks we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was destroyed because of a lack of love between us Jews, and will be rebuilt when we show true brotherly love for one another.

Charidy is a perfect example of how we love, support and care for each other. Let's continue the momentum and increase in acts of love and kindness, and together we can bring the Third Temple ever closer. 

A Muslim Helps a Rabbi

Blog.jpegThis week I had dinner with Daniel Fish and his brother Tal. The Fish brothers are alumni of our annual Belev Echad program which brings severely wounded IDF soldiers to NY for ten days of excitement.

Daniel was severely wounded by Hamas terrorists in Operation Protective Edge last summer. He was in a UN clinic near Khan Younis when a huge explosion collapsed the building, killing 3 soldiers and wounding 26. Later, a tunnel filled with explosives was discovered directly under the building.

Shortly after Daniel was rescued from the rubble, he lost consciousness, and a respiratory path was opened in his throat to help him breathe. The rescue was incredibly quick but very complicated, because Hamas terrorists continued firing mortars at them, causing yet more injuries and putting the rescuers' lives in danger as well.

Daniel, and his brother Tal who has taken care of him since his injury, were back in New York, so we had dinner together. I very recently had albums of our trip printed, and after dinner I gave 15 copies to Daniel and Tal to bring back to Israel for the rest of the group.

We said our goodbyes, and they hopped in a taxi and headed to their hotel. Their driver's name was Mohammed Islam, a religious Muslim from Bangladesh. Seeing Daniel's wheel chair, the taxi driver asked him about his injury, and when Daniel explained that he was injured in the war, he was visibly shaken.

Back in their hotel room, Daniel and Tal suddenly realized they'd left the box of albums in the back of the taxi! Hands full with the wheelchair, they'd simply forgotten.

Daniel panicked. This wonderful gift—with which he and the rest of the soldiers could relive their trip over and over—was gone. He called me and apologized profusely.

Based on my own experience losing cell phones in taxis, and knowing that Daniel had paid cash and not taken a receipt, I knew the likelihood of tracking down the albums was close to zero.

But, by Divine providence, the albums were sponsored by a woman in Texas who had flown in to participate in the Belev Echad trip in May. Her phone number was on the back of each album, so that the soldiers could thank her.

I called her and explained the situation, in case by some miracle the taxi driver called her. And, indeed, that's exactly what happened. Mohammed Islam, the taxi driver, called the woman in Texas, who gave him my address. He made a special trip all the way from his home in Queens to deliver the albums personally. Thank you, Mohammed! We chatted for a few minutes, and he told me that he feels strongly that Jews and Muslims should not be at war with one another.

Israel and the West are currently fighting radical Islamic terrorism. We are used to seeing Jews and Muslims fighting against each other. Almost weekly there is another terror attack against us in Israel. What a breath of fresh air to meet this lovely gentleman, Mohammed Islam. May the world be blessed with many more righteous people, and may we all get along just fine!

Bar Mitzvah at 53, at Starbucks

11270216_966764273357788_6521311114280157886_o.jpgDear Amit, Nir, Daniel, Dvir, Amit, Ohad, Amir, Shai, Elnathan and Meir,

You have been back in Israel for several weeks now, but we continue to feel the impact of your visit. You thanked us for the trip, but you have made a tremendous difference to our community, and for that I thank you.

Let me tell you a story:

John* is a 53-year-old Jew who grew up in New York with very little Jewish upbringing. No day school, Hebrew school or bar mitzvah. Despite growing up in one of the most vibrantly Jewish cities in the world, John grew up with virtually no Jewish experiences or education.

When he heard that we were bringing a group of severely wounded IDF soldiers to New York through our Belev Echad program, John decided to attend one of the events. He wanted to hear your stories of bravery and heroism. When he found out how young you all were when you joined the army to protect us and our land, he was in awe.

Although John had never before attended any of our programs or step foot in our shul, when he heard about you guys, he came right in. You caused a Jew to step foot in our doors—somebody who would never otherwise have attended. If not for you, John and I would likely never have met. So, thank you!

After chatting with John for a while, I realized he had never had a bar mitzvah. When I offered him one, he said, "I'm 53 years old! How can I have one now?

But, as we know, it's never too late.

We met at Starbucks this week and started learning Torah. John thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and we made plans to learn together regularly. Then we stood up, in the middle of Starbucks, and John put on tefillin and recited the Shema. I explained to John that by doing so, he is helping the IDF soldiers, because it says in our Torah that, “...when the nations of the world see that the name of the L-rd is upon you they will fear you.” So, he is, essentially helping the IDF from thousands of miles away.

Starbucks was quite crowded, and when I explained to the curious onlookers that we were celebrating John's bar mitzvah, they cheered proudly and respectfully.

So thank you Amit, Nir, Daniel, Dvir, Amit, Ohad, Amir, Shai, Elnathan and Meir for providing us with the opportunity to host you, and thank you for inspiring us and our community. Thank you for leading John to his bar mitzvah, and thank you for all the other mitzvot you inspired us to perform. 

This week we mark the 21st yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe taught us to love every Jew, and to appreciate and value the G-dly soul that is inside each of us! The Rebbe taught us that it is never too late to learn, never too late to do a mitzvah and never too late to celebrate a bar mitzvah. The Rebbe taught us to view each mitzvah as the one that may potentially tip the scales and bring Moshiach.

The soldiers didn't meet John and had no idea how profoundly they had changed his life. Likewise, we can and do influence those around us, both knowingly and unknowingly. Let's make sure we do so positively.

*Name changed to protect privacy

Lost $22,000

Blog.jpgA close friend and congregant, Paul*, was in Vegas recently on business.  

Now, Paul does not keep Shabbat, but he recently committed to turning his phone off each week. While it may sound easy to those who do it regularly, it is certainly not easy in the beginning! For somebody who is used to texting, emailing and Googling at any time, going 25 hours without is supremely difficult.

So, there was Paul, in Vegas, on a Friday night, on his way back to his hotel room which happened to require walking through a casino. Walking through the very non-kosher, non-Shabbat-like environment was tough. From the bar, to the music, to the slot machines...everything is made to entice.

Just as Paul was nearing the end of all these temptations, he happened to bump into an old friend from the East Coast. They sat down, near the slot machines, chatting and catching up on old times. His friend was in a gambling mood and encouraged Paul to join him. "Just throw a few coins in that slot machine," he said. "...see what happens!"

Paul was torn. Gambling is fun and enticing, and of course he wanted to play the slot machines. But, when he thought about his phone, which he had recently started turning off for Shabbat, he managed to control himself and refrain.

An hour or so later, Paul and his friend parted ways and Paul stood up to leave. He saw a young woman immediately seat herself exactly where he had been sitting. She put a few coins in the very machine he had stopped himself from playing, and voila! She won $22,000!

Paul was flabbergasted. He so easily could have won that $22,000. He sat in front of that machine, so tempted, for over an hour. And this is his reward? He kept Shabbat and lost $22,000? How can that be?

When he returned from his trip, Paul came to me quite distressed. "I could have gotten that $22,000!" he said. I don't understand. It's like G-d was telling me if I hadn't kept Shabbat, I would have got that money!

I explained to my friend Paul, that every year on Rosh Hashanah the amount of money we will make during the coming year is decreed. We cannot make more than G-d has allotted to us. We do, of course, need to make sure we create a vessel through which that money will arrive. ie. we cannot sit at home, with no job, and wait for the money to fall from Heaven.

That money, I explained to Paul, was not money allotted to you. So don't feel like you missed out. That money belonged to the other women, even before she entered the casino. But the money that G-d has planned for you? He will get it to you through kosher channels.

It's our job to create a strong, kosher vessel for G-d's blessing, which includes keeping Shabbat, as Paul did. When we do our part, surely G-d will do His.

*Name changed to protect privacy

United We Stand

Blog.jpgAbout a year ago, I received a group email from my wife's family. Their grandmother had passed on, and they were asking the extended family to join in studying Talmud in her memory. My wife has 15 siblings and a very large extended family, so they decided to ask everyone to commit to collectively completing the entire Talmud.

Now, the Talmud contains 63 tractates and over 6300 pages. Under normal circumstances, completing the Talmud requires intense study several hours each day for a full seven years! But in this case, if everyone agreed to chip in, and we were to divide it between so many willing participants, we should be able to complete it in just one year.

Asking people to study Torah in memory of the deceased is very common in Judaism. By learning something, or doing a mitzvah, specifically in that person's memory, we help elevate their soul in the higher world.

At the time, I was under a lot of pressure at work and unable to commit to anything, so I deleted the email, assuming they could do it without me.

But a few days later my wife's cousin called me. "I didn't see your name on the list!" he said. "We still have tractates available. Can you please commit to one?"

I tried to get out of it. Studying a tractate of Talmud is a serious commitment which takes hours and hours of time. Finally he wore me down and I agreed to take half the tractate of Berachot. 

Months passed, and while I kept intending to start studying, somehow I got no further than the first page. As the end of the year drew near, I kept getting reminder emails but I simply ignored them...

...until the last minute! Sound familiar? We all leave things till the last minute occasionally.

But here I was, with everyone depending on me. Out of the 6300 pages of the Talmud, only my 80 pages hadn't yet been studied! And this wasn't simply an hour or two of reading. Each page requires hours of study to be understood.

What could I do? I refused to let the whole group down. I had made a commitment and I intended to honor it. So I turned to my trusty Whatsapp groups. I have a few family groups and a group of South Africans, so I posted in all the groups that I desperately need people to help me complete my pages of Talmud. Lo and behold! Within minutes, I had dozens of people agreeing to take a couple of pages each, and within a few hours we had finished my entire section. Mission accomplished!

In this week's Torah portion we read about the Jews carrying the Holy Ark through the desert. Every time the Jews camped, they collectively assembled it, until it was again time to travel, when they collectively dismantled it.

There are times in life when a burden is too big to carry alone. But if we work as a team, the task becomes suddenly surmountable. In this case, collectively completing the Talmud is what made it doable. When we unite, we become a powerful force, able to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

I Want Somebody Normal!

Blog.jpgThis week I went to dinner with my close friends Shirley* and Simon*. After a pleasant conversation, I turned to Shirley and said, "You have a wonderful daughter. Nu? Isn't it time to think about marrying her off?"

Shirley let out a big sigh. "Oy, you've hit a raw nerve. Rachel is 25 years old, gentle, kind, intelligent, well-educated and absolutely beautiful. So many eligible young men want to date her—in fact, they chase after her! She has only one requirement, but has yet to find someone."  

I thought to myself, only one requirement? That should be easy enough! What could it be? The guy needs to be wealthy? Kind-hearted? Harvard-educated?

But, no. According to Shirley, her daughter's single requirement is for the guy to be NORMAL!

That's it. Somehow, though, none of the young men she's been dating have fit the bill.

Interestingly, I hear this from many young men and women. "I just want somebody normal."

What do they actually mean? Has everyone they've met until now really been abnormal? How do you even define normal? Am I normal? Are you normal? What IS normal?

According to the dictionary, normal means "usual or ordinary".

In this week's parshah we read about the 12 princes of Israel—the heads of the 12 tribes. The prince of Yehuda was Nachshon ben Aminadav. Nachson's sister, Elisheva, was married to Aaron, the high priest and brother of Moses. The Torah tell us that Aaron heard Elisheva had a brother who was "abnormal" and he liked that.

When the Jews left Egypt, and stood at the edge of the Red Sea, unsure how to proceed, Nachshon was the one who jumped into the swirling waters. Deeper and deeper he waded, until finally the waters split and the entire nation was able to pass through on dry land. No one else risked their lives like that—certainly, he was not "normal" (i.e., ordinary), and therefore Aaron married his sister.

Perhaps we should learn from Nachshon to be a little less normal. It's good to stand out and be different from the herd—for the right reasons. We need to identify closely with our Judaism and strengthen our connection with G-d. Then, surely, finding a spouse will become easier.

"So really, your daughter doesn't want someone normal and average," I said to Shirley. "She wants someone  unique and special." 

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

I Want To Fight

meir.jpgMeir Raginyano, an IDF soldier and member of our most recent Belev Echad trip, shared his story with our community at our Friday night event.

Meir was born without fingers on his right hand, and spent much of his life fighting to be like everyone else. His parents insisted that he not be treated differently, and as a result he learned to work around his disability and keep up with his friends.
When he turned 18, Meir went to the draft office. They took one look as his hand and gave him an exemption. But for years Meir had dreamed of serving his country and he refused to be deterred. He trained and trained. He showed the draft officers that he could run as well as anyone else. He taught himself how to hold a gun. He even spent eight months training on one specific exercise until he mastered it just as well as everyone else, despite his lack of fingers.
Eventually, he proved that he would be of tremendous value and they agreed to draft him into active duty. Time and again, Meir proved he could stand ground with the best of them.
Unfortunately, while fighting the recent summer war, Meir was severely injured. Anti-tank missiles were fired at the building he was in, and he was seriously wounded in his leg and right hand. Shrapnel was scattered throughout his body. He was taken to Soroka hospital where he underwent several complicated operations. He currently still undergoes treatment and rehabilitation at Tel Hashomer hospital, but his greatest wish is to return to the army and once again fight alongside his comrades to protect his nation!
As I listened to Meir sharing his story, I realized it holds a tremendous lesson for all of us in our own lives.
This weekend we mark the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. When G-d gave us the Torah, He drafted us into His elite army. He gave us a mission—conquer the world by spreading Torah wherever you may be. Perform acts and kindness and encourage others to do so as well. Remember Who you represent and sanctify G-d's name.
Unfortunately, we are not all as determined to embrace our draft as Meir was. We may prefer to shirk our responsibilities and let others take the lead.
But we can learn from Meir how fortunate we are to have been drafted, and how hard we should work to embrace our mission. We can't just give up and expect others to take over! We need to fight the Good Fight, spreading goodness and kindness and Torah and mitzvahs wherever we go!
Meir wanted nothing more than the opportunity to join the army. We have that. Each and every one of us was automatically given that chance—all we need to do is implement it.
Go ahead! You are in the army—fight!

Turning Jews Away?!

10373834_964832746884274_4467211020526507506_n.jpgOver the last ten days our community hosted our 8th Belev Echad trip, where we welcome a group of severely wounded IDF soldiers and give them an incredible New York experience. One of the highlights of the trip is the Friday night dinner—hundreds of community members join for evening of inspiration with our heroic guests.

Knowing how popular the Friday night event has been in the past, I made sure to publicize it early. I sent out emails with all the relevant information, reminding people to get their reservations in early to ensure they had a spot. I posted multiple times on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus over several weeks.

Reservations came in steadily and I kept warning people that if they don't reserve soon, we might have no space left. When we reached capacity, we called the caterer and arranged for more space and more food, because we knew how much our community wanted the honor and privilege of spending Shabbat with the sounded IDF soldiers. So we opened up more seats. But eventually, those, too, were reserved, and we reached the point where we couldn't physically accommodate another person.

We closed the online reservation form and wrote clearly in red text, "We are sold out."

And that's when the drama began. Emails and Facebook messages poured in:

"Rabbi, check your website, I think something's wrong."

"Rabbi, did you get my reservation?"

"Rabbi, check your website immediately; it's malfunctioning."

In case it wasn't clear from our website, I posted to Facebook: "To all the dozens of people asking me, sold out means just that—sold out. And no, we cannot squeeze in even one more for tonight's Belev Echad Shabbat dinner of thanks and recognition. So sorry about that, please book earlier next time."

But even that didn't stop the barrage of phone calls, emails and text messages. In fact, once people knew that the event was really sold out, they realized it must be quite a special occasion and they wanted to join even more! 

"Rabbi, do you have room for just one more?"

"Rabbi, I just heard about this event, please, please can I come?"

The best call of all came late Friday afternoon, after all my office staff had already left for the day. I was half way out when the phone rang, and I knew I shouldn't pick it up, but I did anyway.

As expected, it was someone wanting to join the dinner. "Rabbi, do you have room for me?"

"I'm sorry, we're completely full." 

"Rabbi, you are Chabad, right? How do you, as a Chabad rabbi, turn a Jew away from experiencing Shabbat?"

How do I answer that?!

Some of these people were incredibly determined. Many people without a ticket showed up and just sat in any empty seat. Assigned seating? Apparently it didn't bother them and they assumed the person whose seat they took would just take someone else's assigned and paid-for seat! 

In fact, the assigned seating created its own problems. One woman emailed asking to sit with a particular friend, but the "friend" emailed in no uncertain terms that she absolutely will not sit with her! When the first woman arrived and realized she wasn't seated with her friend, she was fuming.

Again and again, who gets the blame when people are upset? Who can they yell at? The rabbi, of course! 

But then I realized, there's an important lesson here: If where we sit for two hours is so vital, how much more careful we should be about where and with whom we spend 70 years of our lives!

Moreover, we often don't appreciate things until we can't have them. When the event is sold out, it becomes much more attractive. When I can't have something, it becomes that much more valuable.         

We are about to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Each year, it's as if we are receiving the Torah all over again—this year for the 3328th time.  This will be a grand event, unlike any other. The Torah is more precious than anything else in our lives. We will stay awake all night in anticipation and excitement!

Now, unlike our Shabbat dinner, G-d's event will never be sold out, and He'll always have room for one more.

But don't wait until the last minute to get your seat for this grand event.

Start planning now.

Book your ticket! Come to shul! Do a Mitzvah! Prepare yourself to receive the ultimate gift—G-d's Torah.

Let's Create Earthquakes

Fifteen years ago I visited Nepal with a group of friends to conduct a Pesach Seder for 2000 Jewish (mostly Israeli) backpackers. 

In Nepal, everyone and everything is relaxed. Everything is "sababa." Many Israelis travel there after completing their army service, to climb and hike and simply "switch off." Surrounded by the most beautiful mountains, rivers and hiking trails, one can truly relax. 

This week, much of Kathmandu and the surrounding villages were devastated by a severe earthquake. The loss of life is unimaginable. The full scope of the destruction and tragedy is not yet known, but there are already 6,100 confirmed deaths, including 19 hikers on Mount Everest who were killed by avalanches triggered by the earthquake. 

We mourn for the dead and pray for the recovery of the injured. 

An earthquake is caused by the build-up of energy in the earth’s crust, which creates seismic waves. It’s like leaving a pot of water over a high flame. At first it sends up just one or two bubbles, then it simmers gently before coming to a rapid boil and ultimately overflowing from the pressure. 

In the aftermath of the tragedy, another earthquake was unleashed—another build-up of energy. Good energy. 

Fifteen years ago, I enjoyed my Nepal experience, but I was more than ready to head home at the end of the week. Rabbi Chezki and Mrs. Chani Lifshitz, on the other hand, have made Nepal their home since 1999, raising their children far from the family and Jewish infrastructure they grew up with. I’ve often wondered how they do it. I mean, I also run a Chabad center but it’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side! Certainly we have our challenges, but they don’t even come close to the challenges of raising a family in Kathmandu. Would I be able to do the incredible work they do?

This week, Rabbi and Mrs. Lifshitz unleashed an earthquake of love, care and devotion.  Their Chabad house instantly became a shelter for hundreds of people to whom they are serving hundreds of meals daily. In less than a week they have served over 5000 meals. Rabbi Lifshitz even took a helicopter and went out to rescue 25 Israelis stuck in the mountains, while his wife Chani ran the Kathmandu operation (and they sent their children to stay with their grandparents in Israel temporarily). He was able to pinpoint their exact location because they had satellite phones which had been donated specifically for him to lend out to hikers. 

Israel, too, joined the aid effort, sending food, water, medical supplies, and 270 workers to create and run the largest field hospital. 

We are currently in the period of time known as Sefirat HaOmer—the counting of the Omer. Sefirat HaOmer is a period of mourning for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died because they didn’t have enough ahavat yisrael—love for their fellow Jews. During this time we focus on helping those in need, and developing and maintaining our ahavat yisrael. It’s a time to unleash spiritual energy into the world. If the build-up of energy in the Earth’s crust can wreak such havoc and devastation, can you imagine how much love we can spread across the world with our acts of goodness and kindness? 

Let’s take that inspiration and translate it into action. Together we can create a large-scale earthquake of kindness which will permeate the very Heavens and lead to the final and eternal redemption, when we will know no more pain, sadness or suffering.  

Let’s get to work! 

Please donate here to the relief efforts of Chabad in Nepal. www.chabadic.com/nepal

Would you Convert for the Perfect Guy?


Jane* walked into my office this week, wanting to talk about her relationship with Chris*:


"When I met Chris, I thought I'd finally found The One. I'm 30, and we met through a mutual friend. Chris is warm, friendly and charismatic—everything I could have possibly wished for. He is charming and intelligent too. As soon as he walks into a room, he makes everyone feel comfortable instantly. He has an excellent job, a warm, loving family and a fabulous sense of humor. He's always happy and can make me smile no matter what else is going on in my life.


"Chris was everything I could have dreamed of in a partner. I knew he wasn't Jewish, but that never bothered me. I just felt so fortunate to have found him. I grew up with virtually zero Judaism observance. I never kept kosher or Shabbat or went to Hebrew school. I did visit Israel pretty often, but would not consider myself religious in any way, shape or form.


"So it didn't bother me or my family that Chris wasn't Jewish. My parents loved him, my siblings loved him, and my friends who married non-Jews all seemed to be perfectly happy.


"After two years together, Chris and I went on a vacation. We began discussing engagement, marriage, having a family, where we might live, where to buy a house etc. After we'd worked out a lot of the details, Chris told me he needed me to do one small thing—convert to Christianity.


"In his eyes, this was a minor request; he didn't think it would be an issue at all. But my reaction was instant and virulent. Absolutely not! Convert? Renounce my faith? Betray my G-d? There's no way I would even consider it. Never!


"And so, the very next morning, I packed my bags and flew home. I cried the entire way, feeling like my world had come crumbling down. "


Here was Jane, in my office, two months after the break up, still deeply pained. "Why did G-d put me through this?" she asked. "Why did I have to meet Chris at all? He was so perfect. I still want to marry him, but I cannot convert. Wouldn't it have been better if I'd never met him in the first place?"


I listened as Jane poured her heart. "I don't know why you had to meet Chris," I said, "but maybe, just maybe, the reason has something to do with this:


"Each of us has two souls—the G-dly soul and the animal soul. The animal soul desires instant gratification. Whatever is good or comfortable right now, the animal soul wants. Food, fun, vacation, etc. The G-dly soul, on the other hand, wants to connect to its source in heaven. It wants to be nourished by its Creator, our Father in Heaven.


"Until now, you have suppressed your G-dly soul. You haven't allowed it to express itself. But your G-dly soul is connected to G-d in a most powerful way and that is what stopped you from converting. When your soul's connection to G-d is threatened, it expresses itself in the deepest way, and I think that's what happened here.



"So why did G-d make you go through this? To allow you to connect with your soul. To allow your soul to express itself, paving the way for you now to reconnect to G-d. Now you can learn about your heritage and your faith, and understand why you rejected the notion of conversion so virulently. "


Let's learn from Jane's experience and make sure to feed the G-dly soul.


*Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals 


Afraid of a Haunted House?

Blog.jpgLast week my kids were home from school for Pesach vacation and we took a CholHamoedtrip to a Long Island amusement park. My kids were thrilled and the first ride they chose was the spooky ghost ride.

I had my nine-year-old, six-year-old and three-year-old children with me, and I noticed that they were petrified from the moment the ride began. First the lights went out. Then a woman who looked like a ghost started moving towards us and there was a spooky man playing the piano. The voices, sounds and darkness all amplified the experience and my kids were terrified, shaking with fear.

As we continued, I thought back to my childhood and the ghost rides I used to go on in South Africa. I remember the fear I used to feel then, so why am I no longer afraid? Why are my kids shrieking but I am completely calm?

Now that I am older and wiser, I understand that the “ghosts” coming at me are not real. It’s simply an illusion. The man playing the piano does not actually exist. The woman is just as fake. Because I understand the reality, I feel absolutely no fear. My kids, on the other hand, who don’t yet have that understanding, cling to me and shake with fear.

This week one of my congregants called me. “Rabbi, I terrified!” he said. “I have a very lucrative business deal I’m hoping to close, but I’m worried I might lose it to one of my competitors.”

I explained to my friend that when the Baal Shem Tov was a small child of four, he was orphaned from his father. As his father lay on his deathbed, he told his son, “Yisroel, do not fear anybody except for G-d.”

“Of course,” I explained, “you have to do everything in your power to secure this deal, but at the end of the day put your trust in G-d and He will provide. Our fears are nothing but illusions.

Yes, we all have fears. Some of us are afraid that if we don’t work on Shabbat, we won’t make enough money. Others worry that by giving charity they won’t have enough for themselves. The worries are endless. But just like the ghosts in the haunted house, these worries are not real. We are like children who perceive real fears when they are really nothing but illusions.

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Shemini. Shemini means eight and represents the supernatural. The number seven represents the natural cycle of the world. For example, G-d created the world and its natural order in seven days. Eight, however, is above and beyond nature. For example, we circumcise our sons when they are eight days old, because the britmilah symbolizes our nation’s logic-defying covenant with G-d.

Seven is the perceived reality, and eight is our faith and belief. Eight is what makes us realize we have nothing to fear in this world, but G-d alone. 

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