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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. 

My Daughter's First Taste of Ice Cream

Blog.jpgThis week, my family and I traveled to Crown Heights to do some Pesach shopping. While we were there, we stopped at the local ice cream store. Everyone got ice cream, including my youngest daughter, Sara, who had her very first taste—and she loved it! She finished her ice cream so quickly, that the rest of my kids were only halfway through theirs. When she noticed, she had an adorable tantrum wanting more ice cream.

This was her first taste of the sweet stuff, but she had certainly seen it before. My other kids have eaten ice cream in front of her previously and she has never shown any desire it for it. Yet here she was flying into a tantrum over it. Where was she until now? Why hadn't she wanted it before?

The answer, of course, is simple. Although she'd seen ice cream before, she'd never tasted it. Once she had her first lick, and realized how good it is, of course she wanted more and more.

According to our sages, there are three things in this world that change a person. The first is alcohol. When a person drinks, they change. And if you have a drink and feel unaffected, it just means you can tolerate a little more. But after you have another drink, you will certainly be affected. 

The second thing that changes a person is money. Some change for the better, others for the worse. But if a person has made or inherited money and it has not yet affected them, it simply means they have not yet reached their tolerance level for money. But money will affect a person just like alcohol. Some people will change with $10,000, others $100,000, others with 1 million and some only with 1 billion

The third item, explain our sages, is Torah. Torah will most certainly affect us all—for the better. We will think differently; it will change our reality. And if we have studied Torah and it has not yet affected us, it simply means we have not yet studied enough Torah.

Torah is like that ice cream. It is delicious. Why did my daughter Sara never desire ice cream previously? Because she had never tasted it. And so it is with Torah. Learning and studying Torah will cause us to love G-dliness and spirituality. Why don’t we love spirituality? Because we have never really tasted it! But rest assured, once we do taste it properly, it will change us and touch us forever.

As we usher in the holiday of Passover and settle down to the Seder, let's pass on our beautiful heritage and delicious Torah to the next generation. The Seder is all about “Vehigadata Levincha,” telling our children the story of Passover. Let your child taste the deliciousness of the Torah. Let them love it. Let them savor it. Make the Seder fun and exciting for them. Give them a lick.

Chag sameach!

Trust Your Pilot?!

pilot.jpgThis week the world was shocked when a large aircraft crashed in the remote French Alps, instantaneously killing all 150 people on board. Based on the available information, the airline has declared the accident deliberate—the copilot took 150 lives along with his own.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims as they mourn their loss. It is a tragedy beyond words.

Admittedly, I’m afraid of heights, and have been ever since I can remember. When my wife and I married, we honeymooned in Cape Town, famous for its Table Mountain. When I saw how excited my wife was to go up the mountain in a cable car, I didn’t want to dash her hopes so I went along, but every minute was torturous.

I often need to travel, either for family events or to perform weddings for congregants. Every time I get on a plane, I force myself to calm my fears. I tell myself that the pilot is in control and he is surely qualified and experienced. I recite a chapter of Psalms and try to relax. In fact, on my last trip to Florida we hit a long patch of turbulence, but I forced myself to remember that someone else is in control. Although it’s well documented that flying is safer than driving, I still prefer to drive. In my car, I feel in control, whereas on the plane I need to put my full trust in someone I don’t even know.

The tragedy of this week’s plane crash is that the passengers and the airline placed their trust in someone who ultimately let them down. Surely, the lesson airlines will take from this tragedy is the need for ongoing evaluations to ensure the pilots are emotionally sound and trustworthy.

We all encounter turbulence in our everyday lives. Perhaps we have familial discord or financial worries. On a global level, Iran’s nuclear program concerns us all.

The same way we need to relax and trust the pilot when we fly (and 99.9% of the time, we do arrive at our destination without incident), as we go through life we need to relax and realize that there IS someone in the cockpit we can trust. The world has a Boss. He is in control, and although we may not see Him, we know that He is there. We need to do whatever we can on our end to overcome our problems, and trust that He will do the rest.

We are about to celebrate the festival of Passover, when we mark the birth of our nation. We know we have somebody we can trust—our dear Father in Heaven.

So relax. G-d’s driving.

Who Really Won the Election?

blog 2.jpgThis week Jews around the world watched the Israeli election with bated breath. When the results came in, my Facebook feed exploded. Some of my friends furious and devastated that their party lost the election. It was as if the world had fallen apart. My other friends, however, were jubilant, because despite all odds their party won.

And I asked myself—who really won the election? 

                                                ******

As a small child, Reb Zalman Aharon (the “Raza”), the older brother of Rebbe Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch (the “Rashab”), often complained that he was noticeably shorter than his younger brother.

One day, the Raza snuck up behind his brother and pushed him lightly into a small ditch. As the Rashab stood up in surprise, the Raza seized the moment and pointed out that now he was taller.

Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (the "Maharash"), the father of the two boys, observed the entire episode. The Rebbe asked for a chair, ordered the Raza to stand on it, and asked him, “Tell me, who’s taller now?”

The Raza answered excitedly that yet again he was taller.

 “Aha!” said Rabbi Shmuel. “There you are! To be bigger than your friend, there is no need to pull him down. Simply elevate yourself!”

                                                *****

When it comes to our nation, we Jews all ultimately want the same things—peace, security, comfort. And when election time comes, we argue and debate endlessly about which path will bring us to that shared goal.

But all too often we get caught up in the debate, and make the mistake of degrading and belittling those who feel differently. Instead of lifting ourselves up, we push the other person down. We all have faults, and it's easier to point out the other person's faults than to elevate and fix our own.

So, in that sense, we all lost the election.

Now we are finally post election and can begin the healing process. We need to rekindle the love we feel for each other, the love that may have become hidden over the last few months because we were so busy debating our election choices.

But we are about to mark the festival of Passover, where we celebrate our nation's freedom. After 210 years of slavery, hardship and suffering, we were finally able to become a nation. Our nation has been through a lot. But despite the strife, at the end of the day we know how to be there for one another. We know how to unite and use our collective strength to reach tremendous goals.  

Let's use this Passover season to strengthen our unity, and then we will have all won the election together.

Should Bibi Speak in Congress?

Blog.jpgIf I were to ask you, a recipient of my weekly email, whether you think Bibi Netanyahu should speak in Congress next week, I would probably get the full gamut of responses.

Some would insist that of course he should speak;after all, we need to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear power. Others will say that Bibi is wrong for angering the White House and Obama; we need Obama on our side. Still others feel that nothing will be achieved by this speech, so why bother?

In fact, on Facebook I have friends voting for Bennet, friends voting for Likud and others for Meretz, Yachad, Shas and Livni. I even have a relative who tells me she cannot identify with any party and is not going to vote at all. I’ve been watching raging arguments break out on social media as people express their outrage and try to convince everyone to see things the way they do.

You know the old joke about the Jew who gets stranded on a deserted island. Finally, after many long months, he is rescued. His rescuers are surprised to see two rather large buildings on the island.

“What are these?” they ask.

He points to one of the buildings. “That’s the synagogue I built when I first arrived.”

“What’s the other one?” they probe.

“That’s also a synagogue.”

“But why do you need two synagogues? It’s only you here!” they asked.

“Are you kidding me?” he replied angrily. “That one over there, I wouldn’t walk into if you paid me!”

It’s ok for us Jews to have differing opinions. That’s perfectly acceptable. But when the difference of opinion leads to venom and animosity, then it becomes a problem.

Loving our fellow Jews means loving them regardless of which party they vote for. It means loving them even if they hate Bibi Netanyahu. I may disagree ideologically, I may know that he or she is 100% wrong, but I love and respect the person nonetheless.

Do I think Bibi should speak in Congress? Do I think it will stop Iran from developing their nuclear bomb? That, I don’t know. But I do know that the Jewish nation has an invincible weapon that can certainly protect us from it. Unity. When we are truly united, we cannot be destroyed.

Of course, we need the IDF. We need a strong army and powerful weapons. We need to do everything in power to protect ourselves, but ultimately G-d decides. And when He sees that despite our vastly differing opinions we are united, we become indestructible.

We are about to celebrate the holiday of Purim, when it’s traditional to disguise ourselves with costumes and masks. Why? When we dress up we show that there is a part of us that remains hidden. My outer self, the one usually on display, is not everything. The real me, and the real you, we are unified. We love each other. It’s only our external selves that are currently arguing. 

Try to recall the incredible unity our nation displayed last summer as we prayed for the missing Israeli boys. And the incredible unity we showed at the funerals for the lone soldiers. That is when we showed our true colors. We have done it before and we can do it again. We are, at heart, a nation that cares. 

Should we all Move to Israel?

Blog.jpgA Jew killed in Denmark.

Jewish graves vandalized in France.

A four-year-old girl buried in Israel this week as a result of a terrorist attack.

Four Jews killed in a supermarket in France.

A nuclear bomb being built in Iran which threatens Israel's very existence.

Anti-Semitism is rampant. Where are we safe? What should we do?

Some leaders are calling for European Jewry to emigrate en masse to Israel.

Is that the answer?

We are currently in the Jewish month of Adar, during which we celebrate Purim and read the Book of Esther.

At that time, the Jews were facing an existential threat. All Jews living at the time were included in  Achashverosh's dominion, and hence in Haman's decree. Every single living Jew was threatened with annihilation.

And when Mordechai and Ester found out about the decree, what did they do?

"Go, and gather all the Jews!" Esther said. "Fast, pray, learn Torah, do mitzvot and return to Hashem."

So Mordechai gathered the Jews and rekindled their faith and their love of G-d.

The answer is to display our Judaism proudly. To increase our faith in our Father in Heaven. It saved the Jews from Haman's decree all those years ago, and it is our answer today.

Whether we live in Denmark or France or Israel, we can learn from Mordechai and Esther.

Let's be proud of our heritage. Let's display it proudly and not hide it!

Do Not Lie!

blog 2.jpgThis week Americans watched the stunning downfall of journalist Brian Williams. Williams was the anchor of NBC's nightly news, watched and trusted by millions, for the last 10 years-a real media darling.

But recently his integrity came under fire after one of his stories began to change. Sadly, it turns out that he fabricated stories about being hit by an RPG in Iraq and seeing bodies float by his hotel room during Hurricane Katrina.

NBC suspended him for six months, which will very possibly end his journalistic career.

Interestingly, in this week's Torah portion we are instructed, "midvar sheker tirchak," - "distance yourselves from falsehoods." In fact, the first question a person is asked when brought before the Heavenly court is, "Were you honest in your business dealings?"

It's clear: regardless of our occupation, we need to tell the truth. No lying, no cheating, no misrepresenting facts.

So what would lead someone like Brian Williams to lie and lose the trust of millions of Americans?

According to the Talmud, babies are born with their fists clenched, signifying the natural human desire to become famous, powerful and well-known.

And perhaps this is what pushed Williams to embellish to the point of fabrication. He wanted to be the one with the most incredible stories; the one everyone would listen to with bated breath and admiration. He wanted the most interesting and personal angle on some of the biggest stories in the last decade.

The Talmud continues to explain that when we die, it is with our hands open and our palms outstretched, signifying that we take nothing to the grave-no power, fame or money. The only things we take with us are the Torah study and mitzvot we have accumulated throughout our lives.

The kindnesses we show others, the tzeddakah we gave, the prayers we recited, the people we helped-this is what we take with us to the next world, and this is what we should strive to increase.

It's easy to get bogged down, and roped in by our strong inclination for fame and power, but Williams serves as a reminder to us: stay honest and truthful, and focus on what really counts. 

Be a Mentsch!

menucha-yankelevitch-chuppah-jewish-art-oil-painting-gallery.jpg*Natalie is warm, kind, caring, compassionate, friendly and intelligent. She has a good job and comes from a wonderful family. She’s 34 years old and not yet married.

Having known Natalie for the last 10 years, I can say with confidence that any man who marries her will be lucky. She will make an incredible wife and mother.

So why isn’t she married yet? I don’t know. She’s been dating and doing all the right things but simply hasn’t found the right one yet.

This week Natalie called me for advice. “I’ve been dating *Brian for last 18 months,” she explained, “and I really like him. I know he would make a great husband and father.”

Now, I know Brian because they’ve come to some of our events together, and from what I see I agree with Natalie—they seems well suited and I think it could be a good marriage.

So I told Natalie, “Nu? When are you going to take the plunge?”

Natalie began to cry. “I’m ready to marry Brian, but every time I bring up the ‘marriage conversation’ he changes the topic or laughs about it. He says he’s not ready yet and I don’t want to push him away by asking for a commitment. What should I do? Is it normal for a guy to be so unwilling to commit after more than a year of dating?”

Not ready? This guy is already in his 40s! When will he be ready? What is he waiting for?

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the Jewish people receiving the Torah from G-d. The entire Jewish people —several million people—stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah, thereby becoming a nation.

Being Jewish doesn’t mean working through a checklist of “must do's.” Judaism is something that needs to permeate our very beings. Every minute of every day we should be working to be actively Jewish. Being Jewish doesn’t mean just going to shul or praying or keeping a few mitzvahs. Being Jewish means being a mentsch 24/7.

I know that Brian doesn’t intend to be unkind. He is a good person! He simply doesn’t realize the hurt he is causing his girlfriend.

If you have no intention of actually taking the plunge, don’t string along a young woman who is desperately ready to get married and begin raising a family. First get some therapy, and then date her like a mentsch.

Let’s all take a lesson from the parsha. Being Jewish means being a mensch in every aspect, and being a mensch is something we need to do 24/7.

Have a wonderful Shabbat!

 

Prepare for a Blizzard of Epic Proportions!

unnamed.jpgOn Sunday I began to see people posting blizzard announcements all over Facebook. Living in New York, I am used to snowstorm warnings, but this one was different. The blizzard about to wallop much of the Northeast would bring record amounts of snowfall to New York, forecasters predicted.

Mayor de Blasio and the meteorologists cautioned New Yorkers to take the blizzard warnings seriously. "This could be the biggest snowstorm in the history of New York City, unlike anything we've seen before," they said.

Slowly, the city began to shut down. Schools and businesses closed early. I'd been summonsed for jury duty Monday afternoon, but two hours in the courts closed and we were dismissed, with documentation clearing us from having to serve for another six years.

Cars were ordered off the roads by 11pm and the transit system was completely shut down. Thousands of flights were cancelled, including my mother-in-law's return flight to London, so we were able to enjoy her company for a few extra days.

The media frenzy took on a life of its own, and I received frantic phone calls from relatives all over the world concerned for our safety and wellbeing in the face of this looming snowmageddon.

It's safe to say this storm affected millions and millions of people, who went out and stocked up on food, water, flashlights, batteries, salt, snow shovels and everything else they might need for the storm. When I tried to buy a sled for my kids, all the stores were completely sold out!

And then I woke up bright and early Wednesday morning expecting to see the city drowning in snow, but it was nowhere to be found. Just a few small inches in the ground. Juno, predicated to be the worst storm to ever hit New York, failed to deliver.

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This week we mark the 10th of Shevat—the day the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe passed away, and also the day upon which, one year later in 1951, his son-in-law, the Rebbe, assumed leadership of the Chabad movement.

On this day, exactly 64 years ago, the Rebbe gave his first talk as leader of the Chabad movement, and he predicted a major storm. A blizzard of epic proportion was heading our way, and he strongly advised us to prepare.

This blizzard would reach not just 30 million people, but all 7 billion people living on earth. We've been preparing for this storm, not just for two days, but for thousands of years. And unlike Juno, which failed to come, this storm is coming.

The Rebbe told us we would witness not a snowstorm, but a storm of warmth. This storm won't shut down airports, it will open up the airways and we'll all travel on eagles and clouds! The storm is coming and it's the storm of Moshiach.

The Rebbe promised us that our generation would witness the coming of Moshiach and the era of peace and tranquility he will usher in.

Most of all, the Rebbe told us to prepare. How? By accumulating acts of goodness and kindness.

Thirty million people made sure to take the predictions of winter storm Juno seriously. Now it's time to take the Rebbe's words seriously.

Go out, get ready, stock up on mitzvos, and do everything you can to prepare to greet Moshiach!

Never heard of Charlie. Have you?

9aa347bda17186eaf1e80331668e7430.jpg

Prior to last week's tragic terror attack in France, had you heard of the Charlie Hebdo magazine? 

Neither had I. 

And for good reason: the magazine was a nonentity on the verge of bankruptcy. 

Charlie Hebdo printed about 60,000 copies weekly, of which only 30,000 were actually sold. There are about 60 million people who live in France which means that 0.0005 percent of the population was reading it. And of the billions of people living on Earth, 0.0000042857 percent read this publication, which, for statistical purposes, amounts to zero. 

Virtually no one read Charlie Hebdo, but a few crazed fanatics who did decided to avenge the “honor of Muhammad” by brutally killing 17 innocent civilians in cold blood, and wounding 21 others.
 
This small group of ruthless individuals have forever altered the course of history; the Jewish nation, France, and the free world will never forget last week's terror and bloodshed. 

Our sages teach that the power of goodness and kindness is infinitely stronger than the power of evil. "A little light (goodness and kindness) dispels much darkness (evil)” is not merely an adage—it is the starting point for illuminating our lives and ultimately transforming the entire world. 

And, so, I ask you: 

If two fanatics with AK 47s can shut down an entire country and sow fear across the world, can you imagine how much joy and peace you can spread across the world by lighting Shabbat candles this week? 

If two lunatics, with a single act of terror can bring 3.7 million people together in an unprecedented display of unity, can you imagine the kind of unity that you can create with a single act of love

If two murderers can unite 40 world leaders by taking away the lives of others, can you imagine what you could do by giving of yourself to others through the mitzvah of charity? 

If these systematic murderers could instantly make the almost defunct Charlie Hebdo magazine a household name, selling 5 million copies this week, can you imagine what you could do by studying the Torah, which has been around for 3327 years, is printed in dozens of languages and will never go bankrupt? 

If a few deranged fanatics can unleash widespread terror and bloodshed while offering a prayer to their "god," can you imagine the life, the connection, the meaning you can bring into your life by praying to Hashem? 

If all it took was two of the seven billion human beings on Earth to read the Charlie Hebdo publication and irrevocably change the developed world, can you imagine what you can accomplish today by reading this article? 

Lost in London

Last week I travelled to London for my niece’s wedding. Because my wife is English, and her parents and several siblings live there with their families, we took our children along so they could spend time with the extended family.

While we were there, we decided to make the most of the city and took a trip to the London Eye. Living in Manhattan should have taught me not to take a car into the notoriously traffic-congested city, but with four little jetlagged kids, it seemed easier to take the car. When we arrived, we circled the area several times looking for parking, but alas there was none. We decided that my wife would take our two older children on the giant Ferris wheel and give them the real London experience, while I stayed in the car with the younger two who had both fallen asleep.

I drove around a while longer until I found a place where I could let the car sit until my wife and kids came out. I texted my brother-in-law Moishy, who was also at the Eye with his family, with directions for my wife: “Tell her to walk one block from where I dropped her off and make a left. I’m waiting on that street.”

Unfortunately, I had no way of contacting my wife directly, because when we arrived in London we decided to put a local sim card into one of our phones, but we felt it unnecessary to do to both phones; one was sufficient. As it happens, I ended up with the working phone.

The ride ended, my wife’s siblings and their families headed to their cars, and Shevy and the kids started walking towards our car.  The problem is my directions were not as clear as I thought they were! So they walked and walked, jetlagged and freezing cold, without finding me. Meanwhile, I had two sleeping jetlagged kids in the back of the car, and when I realized there was a problem, I started circling the area looking for them. We had no way to communicate and Shevy didn’t even know my London phone number because I’d just gotten it.

I started calling out my window, asking passersby if they’d seen a blond woman with a little girl and boy, but no luck. Soon my kids woke up and started crying, and my frustration mounted.

Being married for 12 years, I tried to put myself into my wife’s shoes and work out what she would do in the current situation. I realized, without a shadow of doubt, that she would grab the nearest taxi, go home, and call me as soon as she arrived. Suddenly I was much calmer, and waited for the call which, as predicted, came soon after.

In this week’s Torah portion we first meet Moses, the greatest leader the Jewish nation has ever known. What made him such an effective leader?

Moses was a shepherd and on one occasion one of his sheep ran away. Moses thought the sheep was trying to escape so he ran after it. He ran and ran and ran until he caught up to the sheep which had stopped at a stream of water to drink. It turned out the sheep was simply thirsty. When Moses understood what was driving the sheep, he walked back to the herd carrying the tired sheep on his shoulders.

This, explains the midrash, is why Moses was a superior leader. A true leader is able to understand why his followers do what they do, say what they say and think what they think. This was Moses’ specialty. For forty years he led the Jewish people, always sensitive to their needs and demands. He understood why they complained and how to motivate them.

What a lesson for all of us! We know many of our family and friends intimately, but how often do we really stop to think things through from their perspective? Next time you have a fight with a friend, spouse, sibling, or business partner, stop and try to really see their side of the argument. Close your eyes, use what you know about that person and how they filter and process interactions, and you’ll have a whole new perspective. Try it!

Lesson from a Car Accident

Two weeks ago my wife Shevy took our son to school. As she drove down West 89th Street, a car unexpectedly pulled out of a parking garage and backed right into her. She slammed on the brakes but not before both cars were damaged. Thank G-d, nobody was hurt.

The driver of the other car hopped out of his car and immediately began yelling at my wife. "This is your fault! You should have been driving more carefully!" He claimed he had been trying to drive forward into the garage and Shevy had hit him from behind.

I arrived at the scene quickly, even before the police. Shevy explained that the other driver had reversed into her, but he continued to insist it was her fault. In fact, he was so adamant about his version of events that Shevy began to doubt herself.

Sound familiar?

We all go through life seeing things from our perspective. We convince ourselves that we're right. We argue with our spouses and find it hard to apologize because we're so certain we are 100% correct. We fudge business deals and convince ourselves that the other party is in the wrong. We are blinded by our own version of events.

This is exactly what happens in this week's Torah portion. Our forefather Jacob dies, and his 12 sons bury him. Over the next few weeks, Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, stops inviting his brothers to dine with him as they have become accustomed. The brothers assume that, now that their father has passed on, Joseph is ready to take revenge on them for selling him when he was 17. Fearful, they send him messages begging him not to harm them.

But they are wrong. They are biased by their own perspective. All Joseph wants is a little time to mourn his father's death. He isn't ready to sit around and feast with his brothers. He has no plans for revenge. They simply misread him, because they saw the world through their own lens. Joseph, of course, reassures them that he had no ill intentions and loves them wholeheartedly.

Fortunately, in my wife's case there was a witness who was able to confidently tell police that the other driver was fully at fault, and there was even a surveillance camera recording the entire incident. Ironically, even in the face of such clear-cut evidence, the other driver continued to insist Shevy was in the wrong!

Nothing in this world happens by chance; everything is Divinely ordained. We don't know exactly why G-d planned this car accident, but we will, G-d willing, check our tefillin and mezuzot to make sure they are 100% kosher.

As we enter 2015, let's resolve to be more sensitive to the needs and intentions of those around us. If we learn to see things from the other person's perspective, our relationships will be dramatically better.

What Were You Talking About in 2014?

This week Facebook released a list of the most-discussed topics in 2014. With one billion members, Facebook is the largest discussion forum in the world. So before I read the results, I asked myself, “What do I think is most-discussed? What do people care about the most? What major events happened in 2014? The war in Iraq? ISIS? Ebola?The President?” I was hoping maybe some religion of spirituality might be on the list.

Well, first on the list was the World Cup. Soccer. I should have guessed! Then there were discussions about celebrities, with Beyonce in first place. Ebola was also high up on the list. These are things that were on people’s minds this year.

Facebook then sent every user individual highlights of their year, probably determined by which posts received the most engagement. Not to be outdone, Google also sent their users a timeline video.

All this got me thinking: what about our own recap of the year? Are we proud of the fact that we spent so much time discussing the World Cup, celebrities and movies we watched? What were out conversations like over the past year? We know that everything we say gets recorded, not by Mark Zuckerberg, but by the A-mighty G-d. If we were able to see a timeline of all the conversations we’ve had over 2014, would we be proud of the results?

In the Shema prayer, which we read twice a day, G-d tells us what he would like to see us discussing: “And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise.”

G-d wants us to engage in discussion about Torah at all times. Whenever we have a free moment, we should be thinking and talking about something meaningful, something Divine.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every Facebook user only ever post Torah thoughts, but perhaps it would be wise to begin each day by sharing something meaningful. Post something spiritual, something G-dly, and who knows? Perhaps it will catch on and feature as one of the highlights in 2015!

Modern Day Maccabim

belev echad nets.jpgWe are currently celebrating the holiday of Chanukah, when we commemorate the victory of the small group of Maccabees over King Antiochus and his vast Greek army.

The Chanukah story may have happened more than 2000 years ago, but I just spent 10 incredible days with an inspirational group of modern-day Maccabees.

Our community just hosted a delegation of seven severely wounded IDF soldiers. As has been the case every year since we launched Belev Echad back in 2009, I am moved beyond words by the incredible spirit of faith and resilience exemplified by each and every one of these modern-day heroes. These young boys took bullets and shrapnel for the rest of us. Because of them, we have our homeland, Israel. I well understand what the Lubavitcher Rebbe meant when he identified our soldiers as tzaddikim, truly righteous, holy individuals.

One of the soldiers, Gil, told us his story. He was serving in the Special Forces when his unit was ambushed by Hamas terrorists this past summer. He was shot in the hand. He saw the terrorists approaching and it appeared they intended to kidnap him. He tried to draw his rifle, but was unable to because his hand had been shot. He had to make a split-second decision. He reached for his grenade and pulled the pin, making peace with the fact that he would kill himself together with the Hamas terrorists, and not allow himself to be kidnapped. At the last minute, his fellow soldiers in the unit were able to pull him to safety and put the pin back in the grenade, saving his life. Hearing this story from Gil, a modern-day Maccabee, was incredibly moving.

Over the past 10 days we took our Maccabees out to give them the real New York experience. Museums, tours, sightseeing, sports games, fine dining… we did it all!

But these guys are not like ordinary tourists. They do everything with gusto and a real love for life. On Sunday we went to the Metlife Stadium for a Giants football game, where they were treated to box seats. It was a great game—the Giants versus the Redskins—and the Giants won.

In the middle of the game, the crowd was roaring, cheering and waving their flags, and our soldiers wanted to participate. No problem! Ron took off his prosthetic leg and started waving it in the crowd! This was a moment which truly demonstrated the spirit of the IDF. Yes, Ron is in pain all the time. Yes, he’s depressed about losing his leg. But that doesn’t mean he can’t also be happy. His spirit triumphs again and again.

The others followed suit, and were soon leading the cheers to the delight of the fans around them.

That’s the sort of character and spirit these young men consistently display. Rather than giving up on life or feeling sorry for themselves, they are determined to live life to the fullest and raise the spirits of those around them.

Here in this community, in our own small but not insignificant way, we are privileged to be able to help these young men continue to smile through their injuries, spreading hope, strength and positivity wherever they go. Not out of pity, G-d forbid, but out of profound appreciation for these young men and the sacrifices they have made on our behalf. It is a gift to them, but a much bigger gift to us. What an honor and privilege to spend time with these modern-day Maccabees.

770, My Spiritual Home

Number 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, known to thousands as simply "770", is home to Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters. The building houses dozens of offices, a study-hall, and of course a large synagogue. It is the place where Rebbe gave his talks and farbrengens and handed out dollars. From 770, the Rebbe sent out his emissaries, building the largest spiritual army in history which today covers a large portion of the globe. Simply put, 770 is the hub of Chabad.

After studying in Israel for a few years, in the year 2000 I headed to Brooklyn to study in 770. I vividly recall one evening in particular. The dormitory where I had been staying temporarily was overcrowded, my friend's basement apartment was full, and the apartment I would be moving to in a few days was not yet ready. So what did I do? I went to 770, which is open and occupied 24 hours a day, pushed a couple of benches together, and went to sleep. I felt safe. I felt at home.

More than a building or a synagogue, 770 is a magnet, a compass, drawing people in. I studied in 770 for about 8 years. I spent hundreds of hours poring over holy texts; hashing out Talmudic debates. I spent many a night in that study hall, deep in Chassidic discussion, often till the wee hours of the morning. This is the place I could forget about the rest of the world and meditate for hours about the greatness of G-d.

Whenever I come to Crown Heights I make a point of bringing my kids into 770 because 770 is such a holy place. It is my spiritual home.

But two days ago, the safety and security we've always felt in our home away from home, 770, was brutally shattered when a knife-wielding man violently stabbed 22-year-old Israeli student Levi Rosenblatt* in the neck. Thank G-d, Levi is recovering and will be ok, but to have a horrific attack like this in 770 is unimaginable. Understandably, we are all reeling.

Clearly, the spiritual forces of darkness are waging war, desperately trying to subdue us.

But this week in particular we celebrate the triumph of Chassidism and light over those who sought to destroy it. The 19th of Kislev is known as the Rosh Hashanah of Chassidism. On this day, the founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was released from prison (where he had been imprisoned due to false accusations) and allowed to continue spreading his teachings. When he returned home, he explained that his release from prison was not only a personal victory, but a spiritual one as well. In the heavenly realms, the forces of evil were trying to prevent the dissemination of Chassidism, and the Rebbe's physical release from prison represented the victory of holiness, purity and light over darkness.

Today, we stand on the cusp of redemption, ready for Moshiach, and so once more we battle the evil forces that would like nothing better than to see us fail. But we cannot be subdued. As we celebrate the 19th of Kislev this week, and Chanukah next week, we will continue to add light, love, kindness and generosity to the world, until we manage to vanquish the darkness entirely. 

*Please continue to pray for Levi Yitzchak ben Raizel. May he have a full and speedy recovery

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