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Never heard of Charlie. Have you?

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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

I Don’t Recognize You

Requirements-to-get-driving-license-for-H4-Visa-holders-No-SSN.jpgThe other day I needed to have some paperwork notarized so I went to my local TD bank. After waiting in line and preparing all the documents, I was asked for my photo ID, only to realize that I’d left it in my office.

“Can you do it without my ID just this once?” I asked. After all, this woman knows me; she’s helped me countless times. “Can you rely on facial recognition just this once?” I begged.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. “I don’t recognize you,” she said. “You must bring photo ID.”

So I was forced to go back to my office, get my ID and return to the bank to finish notarizing the documents.

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In this week’s Torah portion Yaakov is reunited with his brother Eisav after 20 years apart.

After deceiving their father and taking the blessing intended for his brother Eisav, Yaakov fled to avoid his brother’s wrath, where he lived with his uncle Lavan and met and married his wives, Rochel and Leah. Now, 20 years later, Yaakov returns to his hometown and Eisav comes out to greet him.

In the distance, Eisav sees his brother approaching, apparently now a fabulously wealthy man with sheep and goats and cattle and wives and children. He is equivalent to today’s successful multi-millionaire businessman—the guy who made it on Wall street, owns a beautiful 5th Avenue penthouse and a home in the Hamptons.

Eisav thinks he finally sees his brother Yaakov for who he is. Finally, he recognizes him!

So Yaakov tells Eisav, “You have not even begun to recognize me or understand who I am.” He tells his brother, “Im Lavan garti,” I lived with Lavan. The word “garti” means lived, but it can also mean “gerut,” foreign. Yaakov was essentially telling Eisav, “All this wealth you see before you, that’s not who I really am. I am, first and foremost, a Jew who is dedicated to G-d and spirituality. All this wealth is secondary. My home on 5th avenue? My private plane, my yacht and my summer home? Yes, I am wealthy, but my wealth doesn’t define me. I use it to serve G-d and I give 10% to charity.”

We also need to be able to say “Im Lavan garti,” my wealth does not define me.

Just as the bank teller needs proof of identity, we need spiritual proof of identity. You’re living in Manhattan, enjoying a luxurious life? Great! But is that who you are? Absolutely not! First and foremost, we are Jews, devoted to Torah and mitzvot.

Don’t let others identify you by your penthouse, your car or your watch. Create your spiritual photo ID card: Learn some Torah, light Shabbat candles, put in tefillin, give charity, do a mitzvah.

Make it clear to yourself and those around you that you are, first and foremost, a committed Jew

Giving $20 to a Multi-Millionaire

10511.jpgLast week my phone rang and I answered it only to be greeted by the age-old question, "Do you have some money for me?" Under normal circumstances, this is certainly not a strange or unusual request. In fact, I often receive this same request multiple times daily, and I myself approach others for money to fund Chabad Israel Center projects. As a rabbi, these calls are par for the course and whenever I can help out I do.
 
But this request was different, because it came from Moshe*, a multi-millionaire who has more money than I could ever dream of! I've called Moshe countless times to ask him the exact same question, and he has donated tens of thousands of dollars to our Chabad center of the past 10 years. He always gives whatever he can.

So why, now, was Moshe asking me for money?

Every week we learn Torah together at the Chabad center and this week was no exception. By the time he called, Moshe was actually a few minutes late for our meeting, and explained, "I was already in the taxi on the way to learn with you when I realized I left my wallet at home. I have nothing on me—no cash, no credit cards. Can you give me $10 for cab?"
 
Of course I gladly went outside to give him the money, and then after the class another $10 to get home. My pleasure.
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Last Sunday evening I attended the international convention of Chabad emissaries together with 5000 of my colleagues. Five thousand Chabad rabbis from 49 states and every country which has a sizable Jewish population. Five thousand rabbis who have dedicated their lives to giving. These rabbis and rebbetzins leave the comfort of their surroundings, the homes they grew up in, and travel to places as far away as Russia, Ukraine, South Korea, Brazil, Australia—you name it! One of the rabbis I met at the banquet was recently uprooted from his home in Ukraine because of the war.

These rabbis, together with their wives and children, are dedicated to giving. Giving everything they have for their communities.

From experience, I can tell you there is no pleasure like that of giving to others. And it's not every day that G-d gives me the pleasure of helping a multi-millionaire from one of the world's wealthiest neighborhoods—the Upper East Side.
 
In this week's Torah portion we read about Rachel who was supposed to marry Jacob. On the night of her wedding she realized that her father intended to send Leah under the wedding canopy in her place. Having suspected he might try this, she and Jacob had set up a secret code word they could whisper to each other at the wedding. But, wanting to prevent her sister's humiliation, Rachel shared the code word with Leah.

So giving was she, that she gave up her husband, her marriage, her own happiness for her sister's sake. (Although, ultimately, she too married Jacob.)

From Rachel, and the Chabad emissaries stationed all over the world, we learn how to give. Each of us has something to give, whether it's time, skills, money or a listening ear. There is no one with nothing to offer. So, what are you waiting for? Go and give!

*Name changed to protect privacy.

The $100,000 Lesson

Latour - crying baby - AP.jpgClose friends of mine have a child named Benjamin who was diagnosed with cysts in his lungs as an infant, and had surgery to remove them when he was five months old. Due to labored breathing he never learned to eat properly and was given a feeding tube at five weeks.  As a result, he developed a severe oral aversion and refused to eat anything.  

Other than the feeding tube sticking out of his nose, Benjamin is like any other child—learning to crawl and walk and babble. I’ve watched his mother try to force feed him but he simply cries and cries and it doesn’t work. 

At a loss for other options, Benjamin’s parents put him on the waiting list for an intense three-month feeding course for children which cost $100,000. Seven months later there was an opening in the program and little Benjamin began the course. Thank G-d, their insurance paid the bill.

Benjamin was taken by the nurse and his parents were not allowed to be in the room. Parents can watch from behind one-way glass, but the children are not to see their parents. 

After the first week, Benjamin had already made tremendous progress, and after three weeks his parents knew he was well on the way to eating like a normal, healthy child. 

Upon reflection, Benjamin’s mother realized that essentially all the doctors did was force feed her child, something she had tried countless times herself. Curious, she approached the main doctor and asked, “How is it that you’ve succeeded where I’ve failed? I tried the exact same method, my husband tried it, but with us he just cries and cries, whereas with you he actually swallows the food! Considering how much this program costs, I assumed you would have some magic formula…” 

The doctor explained, “Your child knows that you and your husband love him to pieces. He knows that the last thing you want to do is hurt or upset him. And he knows that when you force feed him, if he resists enough, you will stop. So he cries and cries and you cannot get him to eat. But I am a stranger, and he doesn’t trust me the way he trusts you. He doesn’t feel confident that I’ll stop if he cries, so he eats. That’s the trick.”

Wow! A $100,000 program because a child knows that his parents love him!

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We can take a lesson from Baby Benjamin. Benjamin knows his parents love him so he cries and cries and resists until they relent. We know that G-d loves us; it’s time for us to do some screaming. This is not a time for platitudes; it’s a time for outrage. 

We must cry and scream on behalf of the widows and orphans, the wounded and the traumatized. Ad matai? How much longer, G-d? No more!  We refuse to accept it longer. It’s time to take us out of this dark and bitter exile, to a better, brighter future, where peace will reign and violence will have no place. 

And while we cry and beg and beseech G-d, we will keep our faith. We will pray for the IDF which does everything it can to protect Israel, and we will take on extra mitzvot in the merit of our brothers and sisters in Israel. Put on tefillin, light Shabbat candles, give extra charity. We may be far away, but even our small deeds can help make a difference. 

“I Never Called You”

Verizon-iPhone-4-Incoming-Call.jpgA Hebrew school teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her six-year-old students. After explaining the commandment  of "honor thy father and mother," she asked, "Is there a commandment to teach us how to treat our brothers and sisters?"

Without missing a beat, one little boy (older brother to several siblings) answered, "Thou shall not kill!" 

As much as we love our siblings, sometimes it's hard to get along.

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My close friend, Yankel, shared a very painful secret with me several years ago. He has only one brother and they haven't spoken in many, many years. They are a small family, and it hurts him terribly that they are not on speaking terms over a fairly minor fight. In fact, he no longer recalls the exact details of what they were fighting about!

I strongly encouraged Yankel to reach out to his brother (who lives in Israel) and try to reconcile, but he insisted that he cannot. Perhaps his ego was getting in the way, or maybe he was afraid of being rejected by his brother, or perhaps it had simply been too long, but the silence continued for another few years. I even dedicated a Yom Kippur sermon to this topic a few years ago in the hope of inspiring a reconciliation. 

It's been 22 years now since the brothers last spoke. 

But, just recently Yankel told me he saw a missed call from Israel on his phone from a number he didn't recognize, so he called back to see who was trying to reach him. He didn't recognize the voice of the man who answered his call, so he said, "My name is Yankel, I got a missed call from this number, who am I speaking to?" 

"I happen to be your brother," the man replied, "but I didn't call you." 

"What do you mean? I have a missed call from you!" Yankel insisted. 

"Well, you must have made some sort of mistake with the numbers," the brother explained, "because I never called you." 

Seizing the moment, Yankel said, "Well, it must be divine providence that connected us today..." and they started chatting easily, both eager to make up for lost time. And for the last two weeks they've spoken every day, with plans to meet soon in person and officially reconcile. 

The Torah tells us about Avraham who was forced to send his son Yishmael away because he had become evil and was persecuting his brother Isaac. Avraham certainly would not have done this unless he had absolutely no choice. They became estranged and although Avraham went to visit Yishmael twice, both times he missed him and only his wife was home. But Yishmael did not reciprocate. He never visited his father in more than seven decades, until after his father's passing. 

In this week's Torah portion we read about Avraham's funeral, which Yishmael attended, walking side by side with his brother Isaac. Tragically, he didn't make amends during his father's life.  

As a community rabbi I witness countless fights between people who truly love each other and it's painful to watch. Parents and children, siblings, cousins...you name it! We get into fights and often forget why we were fighting in the first place—we just know we're not talking. But who ends up in the most pain? We do. We hurt ourselves more than anybody else. 

Life is too short. It's time to make up. Even if you have to pick up and phone and dial your estranged relative and then deny that you made the call, so be it! Do it anyway. Pick up the phone and make amends with those you love. 

Housekeeper Convinces Jews to Pray

Hotel_housekeeper.jpgThis past Shabbat morning we'd just begun services in our synagogue, which is in the Marriot hotel, when one of the housekeepers came running over. 

"There's a young Jewish couple upstairs," she explained, "Can I invite them to join your prayer service?" 

"Of course!" I agreed. 

This young couple from Israel had recently married and were honeymooning in New York. Wanting a nice, quiet, private vacation they booked into the Marriot. They certainly hadn't planned on attending services. But when the housekeeper realized they were Jewish, knowing there was a synagogue right there in the building, she told them they should go. 

Reluctant, they gave her all kinds of excuses. "We're tired...We're on our honeymoon...We aren't members...etc." So she came running down to ask me if it's ok, and when I said yes she managed to convince the couple to at least check out the place. Little did they expect to find a full Chabad house operating from the very hotel they were staying in, complete with a big minyan followed by a delicious kiddush!

Well, they stayed and enjoyed a delicious lunch with good cholent, and of course the wonderful company of our community, and they loved every moment. Their parting words were, "What a treat to do this on our honey moon." 

In this week's Torah portion we read about Avraham. G-d Himself came to visit Avraham because he was sick after  being circumcised at the age of 99. But in the middle of their conversation, Avraham sees strangers passing by, so he tells G-d to wait and rushes over to invite the strangers into his home! He prepares a delicious meal for them and makes sure they are satisfied and comfortable. From this incident, the Talmud teaches that the mitzvah of welcoming guests is even greater than speaking to G-d. 

Often, G-d throws us opportunities to do mitzvahs. They come in all kinds of shapes and forms—sometimes via a Marriot housekeeper who is able to convince an Israeli couple to attend services and help us fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming guests.

If Avraham managed to go out of his way, even interrupting his conversation with G-d(!), when he was sick and in pain, to welcome guests into his tent, certainly we can find ways to fulfill this important mitzvah. 

Those Who Bless You Shall Be blessed

Israel traffic.jpgCBS news reported that US-Israel relations have reached a “new low” after a senior government official called Prime Minister Netanyahu a “chicken**” on matters related to the comatose peace process and a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat, in an interview with The Atlantic.

A few weeks ago I visited Israel for my niece’s wedding. Driving to Ramat Gan, where the wedding was to take place, with my wife and daughter in the car, we had front row seats to the spectacle that is Israeli driving.

In fact, a joke is told of an American tourist riding in an Israeli tax. As the taxi approaches a red light, the tourist is shocked to see the driver drive right through without even slowing. Not wanting to make waves, he holds his tongue.

The trip continues without incident until they reach the next intersection. This time the light is green and to the American’s dismay the taxi comes to a grinding halt. Unable to contain himself, he asks the driver, “When you went through the red light, I didn’t say anything. But why on earth are you stopping at a green light?!”

The Israeli cab driver looks at the American as if he is deranged. “Are you crazy?!” he shouts.
The other guy has a red light. Do you want to get us killed?!”

But back in our car, we were not blazing through any red lights. Traffic had piled up and only motorcyclists were able to make any progress. Happy to be avoiding the traffic jam, many of them zig-zagged wildly through the standstill, crossing lanes without checking.

As traffic finally began to move again, I was changing lanes when a motorcycle went whizzing past. He was speeding and certainly not taking notice of the cars around him, and my car touched his motorcycle.

Furious, he cut me off, got out of his car and began yelling at me and cursing me out. For five minutes straight he shouted at me, told me I don’t know how to drive and I should take driving lessons! And on, and on… My wife and I exchanged a look and I said to her, “Welcome to Israel.”

Indeed, welcome to Israel!

Israel is not like other countries. It is at the forefront of fighting terrorism, and its citizens live with the constant threat of violence. Jews have endured thousands of years of persecution and suffering. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis put their lives on the line for their country. Thousands have died and thousands have been severely wounded.  

Israelis know what danger is and they know how to defend themselves. Just walking down the street can be dangerous. The entire country is a frontline. And on top of that, Israel is constantly scrutinized by the rest of the world. They cannot make a move to protect their own citizens without being ripped to shreds by the media and foreign officials. Perhaps this is what makes Israelis so edgy, trickling down to even the driving.

And one thing Israelis are not, is “chicken**”!

In this week’s Parshah we read about Avraham, who stood up for monotheism despite the ridicule of the entire world. Everyone was against him. In fact, the original name for Jew—Ivri—comes from this Parshah. Ivri means “other side,” because Abraham was on one side and everyone else on the other. He was the only person to believe in one G-d, and even after being thrown into a blazing fire because of his beliefs, he did not waver. He was no coward.

And G-d promises Avraham, “I will bless those who bless you [Israel], and the one who curses you I will curse.” This is a timeless lesson and the message is clear: if you want to be blessed, you need to bless Israel.

Crazy Survivalist Prepares for Year-Long Flood

blog.jpgImagine if Noach were building his ark today. He brings his wood and equipment to the heart of Times Square and begins to build a massive sea-safe vessel in preparation for the flood that he claims will wipe out the entire world. Media headlines scream, “Crazy Man Builds Giant Ark,” and, “Delusional Man Claims G-d Will Destroy the World via Flood.” The newspapers would have a field day. 

Indeed, this is what Noach endured, albeit pre-Internet. It took 120 years to build the ark, and for all those years he faced constant mocking and ridicule. Had BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN and all the others existed, they would have hung Noach out to dry. 

A joke is told about a CNN reporter, BBC correspondent and Israeli commando captured by terrorists. The leader offered to grant each captive one wish before beheading them. 

The CNN reporter said, “Well, I'm an American, so I'd like one last hamburger with French fries.” The leader nodded to an underling who left and returned with the burger & fries.  The reporter ate it and said, "Now, I can die."

The BBC correspondent said, “I'm a reporter to the end. I want to take out my tape recorder and describe the scene here and what's about to happen. Maybe someday someone will hear it and know that I was on the job till the end.”

The leader directed an aide to hand over the tape recorder and dictated some comments. The reporter then said, “Now I can die knowing I stayed true until the end.”

The leader turned and said, "And now, Mr. Israeli tough guy, what is your final wish?"

"Kick me in my face," said the soldier.

"What?” asked the leader, "Will you mock us in your last hour?"

"No, I'm not kidding. I want you to please kick me in my face."

So the leader shoved him into the open and kicked him in his face and his back.

The soldier went sprawling, but rolled to his knees, pulled a 9mm pistol from under his jacket, and shot the leader dead. In the resulting confusion, he reached for his knapsack, pulled out his carbine and sprayed the terrorists with gunfire. In a flash, all the terrorists were either dead or fleeing for their lives.

As the soldier was untying the reporters, they asked him, "Why didn't you just shoot them in the beginning? Why did you ask them to kick you first?"

"What?" replied the Israeli, "and have you report that I was the aggressor?"

Now this joke would actually be funny if only it weren’t all too true.

This week the Jewish world watched in horror as an Arab terrorist rammed his car into a group of people waiting at a light rail station in Jerusalem, killing a three-month-old baby girl—Chaya Zissel—and wounding nine others, some critically. 

"Her parents waited for a child for many years…" said grandfather Shimon Halperin. He told of her parents' joy after she was born, and described how he enjoyed playing with his granddaughter during her tragically short life. The family was returning from the Kotel (Western Wall) when the attack happened. "The parents are in trauma and are trying to digest the news,” he said. 

The terrorist, a resident of the Silwan neighborhood with previous terror convictions, was shot by a police officer as he attempted to flee the scene. He is now in police custody. And the media has either completely ignored the incident, or published it as, “Israeli Police Shoot Man in East Jerusalem.” If that’s not the most ridiculous journalistic account of an event, I don’t know what is.

Imagine what the AP headlines would have looked like for Noach. “Noach Saves Only His Own Family,” or, “Selfish Man Leaves Everyone to Die,” or even, “Evil Man Floods the World.” 

Despite the years of ridicule, his faith in G-d never wavered. He knew G-d would bring a flood if the people didn’t repent, and that’s exactly what happened. He did not let the mockers get to him. 

Likewise, we know the truth and will not deviate from it. G-d gave us the Land of Israel, it’s our land and we will live in it. We will not succumb to terrorism, or to warped reporting. We will continue to defend our land, our families and ourselves, just like Noach. 

Boy, Do They Kvetch!

Rosh hashana 2.jpgLast week we had our first barbecue of the season for the young professionals. We had a great turnout—a few hundred people attended. 

One of our congregants volunteered to man the barbecue and after the event he told me, “Rabbi, that was the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done! Everyone complained non-stop. If the hotdogs were ready, they wanted the burgers. If the burgers were ready they wanted the hotdogs. When everything was ready they wanted it cooked differently! The smoke was burning my eyes, I was sweating with exertion and the kvetching certainly didn’t help. One guy wanted his burger more cooked so he put it back on the grill, went away and forgot about it, and when he came back half an hour later it was burned, of course. Another guy pushed me out of the way so he could roast his marshmallows, while a third guy complained about the lack of beer and a fourth guy complained that there was not enough wine in the sangria. I nearly lost my cool multiple times over the evening, but somehow I managed to hold it together and make it through the night. You’d think these people were paying big money to demand such service, but the $20 charge doesn’t even cover half the expenses!” 

“Mike*,” I said, “I’m so glad you had this experience right now, before Rosh Hashanah. You see, G-d has chosen us as His beloved children, and all year long boy do we kvetch! We complain about anything and everything. But for the most part, G-d takes very good care of us. Every moment of life, health, sun and air is a gift, but more often than not we take it for granted and complain about all the things we don’t have and all the things that are not as perfect as we’d like them to be. 

“How do you think G-d feels about us when we behave like this? In fact, we are told that on the eve of Rosh Hashanah G-d’s enthusiasm for the world diminishes. Maybe the kvetching is a little too much. But then, Rosh Hashanah morning the piercing cry of the shofar, accompanied by our heartfelt prayers, emanates from all the synagogues, shattering through the heavens, straight to G-d Himself. When G-d hears the shofar, it’s as if nothing else exists. Suddenly, He yearns for us, His love rekindled. These same children who complain all year are now the apple of His eye. 

“What a valuable lesson, you learned, Mike—you experienced G-dliness.” 

L’chaim to a wonderful year for all of us, filled with holiness and happiness. Shana tovah!

*Name changed to protect privacy. 

 

I Forgot My Pants!

10376915_10152341176207584_4913930782077071452_n.jpgLast week I travelled to Israel to celebrate my niece's wedding. I also used the opportunity to visit some army bases and wounded soldiers. Visiting these brave heroes who put their lives on the line during Operation Protective Edge was moving and uplifting. 

As we prepared for departure at Newark airport, my brother Yossi realized he forgot to pack his tefillin! In true brotherly fashion I began ribbing him, "How do you forget your tefillin?! It's the first thing you should pack! You've been using them every day (bar Shabbat) since you turned thirteen. How could you forget something so important?" I wouldn't let him live this one down. 

Of course, he made plans to borrow from someone for the three mornings we'd be away, making sure the tefillin he'd be using would be on par with his own. 

Most of the passengers on our flight were Jewish, so we offered them all the opportunity to put on tefillin during the flight, which gave me ample time to tease my brother some more.  

When we arrived in Israel and began to prepare for the wedding, I made a stunning realization. I took a shower, opened my suitcase to take out my Shabbat clothes, and lo and behold I had left my dress pants back in New York! Oops.

I didn't have enough time to go out and buy a new pair, so I had to make do with the same pair of weekday pants I flew in. 

To say I felt foolish would be an understatement. Here I'd spent the flight good naturedly ribbing my brother for forgetting his tefillin and here I am pants-less! And tefillin are probably a whole lot easier to borrow. They are one-size-fits-all, whereas pants need to be specific to the individual. 

In just one week we'll be celebrating the holy and awesome day of Rosh Hashanah. This is the time to look back, analyze our past behavior and clean up our act. We have to deeply and honestly analyze our faults and sins and resolve to work towards rectifying them. 

We are, in fact, experts at identifying faults--those of our family and friends. Most of us can easily fill pages explaining exactly what is wrong with those around us. This one gossips, that one does business crookedly, the other one doesn't treat his wife well. But when it comes to our own faults and imperfections, suddenly we are clueless and blind. Me? Sin? Are you serious? And when someone points it out to us, we have dozens of explanations and excuses. 

This Rosh Hashanah, we want to stand in front of G-d with a clean slate. So, as we prepare, let's try to switch things around and look at ourselves with a critical, honest eye while seeing others more gently and forgivingly. Surely this will help us start the new year off on the right foot. 

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