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I Miss My Daughter!

Blog.jpgIt finally happened. 

After living in the US for 15 years, I finally did what Americans do in the summer: I sent my ten year old daughter daughter to overnight camp!

Now, I am still not a fan of the American three-month summer vacation, and I greatly prefer the South African system I grew up in, where the summer break is much shorter, but that's for another article. 

So, I sent my daughter to overnight camp for the very first time, and I had no idea how much I would miss her. It's not a very long camp, just two weeks, but boy do I miss her! I know she's having a wonderful, exciting time, but I've never been away from her for this long, ever!

A few days into camp she called, but could only speak for five minutes. As expected, she is playing hard, making new friends, and loving every minute. A week in we received a letter from her, and next week she already returns. I love her so much and I can't wait!

Now I have an inkling of how hard it is for our Father in Heaven when we are away "at camp."

You see, for 11 months of the year, most of us drift away from our Father. We are in "camp." We've been removed from spirituality, haven't interacted much with G-d, and haven't kept up with His commandments as well as we should have. 



G-d loves us so much - He misses us!

From time to time we may have made a quick "phone call" to G-d. We may have popped into shul, given a few token coins to tzeddakah or mumbled off some blessings by rote. We may have event "sent a letter," but for the most part we've been away. 

But come this Shabbat, we will be ushering in the new month of Elul with the blessing over the new moon. Elul signifies the end of "camp;" the time to return home. It's a month of repentance, and every day we listen the shofar being blown in order to awaken ourselves spiritually. 

And now I can imagine how excited G-d must be to greet us during this auspicious month. 

Let's go home. G-d misses us!

My Mother’s Accident

Blog.jpgWhen I think of dangerous activities which are likely to lead to injury, mountain climbing comes to mind. So do bungee jumping, paragliding and riding in a space shuttle.

What doesn’t come to mind is walking. In fact, I can think of few things safer!

My mother has been walking daily with her steady walking partner ever since I can remember. Probably at least 25 years. It’s the same route every single day, with the same walking partner, very close to her home. Without doubt, my mother knows every inch of her route by heart.

But this week my mother was hit by a car while walking.

She doesn’t carry her phone, so we cannot blame texting and walking. She was simply crossing a street where she had right of way, but the driver didn’t stop. It wasn’t deliberate and he wasn’t drunk. He wasn’t even driving fast! He simply wasn’t paying proper attention and so he knocked over my mother and her friend.

The driver (a family friend, in fact!) felt terrible and was deeply apologetic. But the damage was done. My mother fractured her foot and may need surgery to repair the damage. She will be on crutches or in a wheelchair for at least six weeks.

How could the least dangerous activity result in a broken leg? Only G-d knows that!

But here’s what I do know. If G-d wants to send us a message, it doesn’t matter where we are. We can be flying, driving, bungee jumping, paragliding or simply lying in bed. If G-d wants to, He will find us even when we’re doing something as innocuous as taking a morning walk.

In this week’s parsha we read the Shema—“Hear O Israel…G-d is one.”

What does it mean that G-d is one? G-d is present and prevalent in every part of our lives; not just the big events, but in every nook and cranny, every mundane and seemingly unimportant aspect. Nothing happens without G-d. He is active and manifested in our lives constantly.

What we need to do is open our eyes and ears, and watch closely to see what exactly G-d is trying to communicate.

What’s the message here? I can’t know for sure, but perhaps G-d wants my mother to slow down, take a short break from her hectic life, and relax for six weeks. 

She certainly deserves it (albeit without the broken leg)!

How Can I Trust You?

Blog.jpgA couple of weeks ago I flew to Israel with my family. As we waited to check in at JFK, juggling our five young children and multiple pieces of luggage, a stranger walked over and introduced himself. Being a Chabad rabbi, and very visible in my black hat and jacket, I am accustomed to being approached by strangers. But this man had something else on his mind.

Jack* was in JFK with his 12-year-old daughter who was flying alone to spend time with her cousins in Israel. The airlines considered her an unaccompanied minor, so Jack was looking for someone he could trust to take his daughter through security, onto the plane and through Ben Gurion at the other end. Of course we agreed to help him, and it turned out that his daughter was actually great help with our five kids. Win-win!

But we were some of the last few people to check in, so I asked Jack, "You must've waited here for a long time until you found someone you felt you could trust. Why did you pick us? Aren't we strangers just as much as the next person?"

"Yes, we arrived very early," he explained. "I've been standing here scanning passengers, trying to decide who I could trust with my precious child."

"What made you trust me?" I asked.

"Well, I see that you have five children, and I noticed the way you were holding and hugging your 2-year-old daughter. If that's how you take care of your daughter, especially in this harried situation, I know I can trust you."

      ---------

This weekend we will make the saddest day on the Jewish calendar-Tisha B'Av. On Tisha B'Av we commemorate the destruction of the first and second holy Beit Hamikdash. Although it's been almost 2,000 years since the second Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, we yearn for it to be rebuilt.

The Midrash tells us that G-d is waiting and yearning to build the third Beit Hamikdash for us, and on Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat before Tisha B'Av, our souls get a glimpse of it. So, if we are yearning for it, and G-d is yearning to give it to us, what is He waiting for?

He needs to know that He can trust us.

The last Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam-baseless hatred. So before we can receive the third and final Beit Hamikdash, we need to prove that we can do better.

How do we show G-d that He can trust us?

Like Jack* who was watching me, G-d is waiting for us to "hug" one another. We need to demonstrate our care, concern, love and appreciation for all our fellow Jews, regardless of how well we know them, how much we have in common, or how much we agree on.

G-d is waiting and watching to see how we treat one another. When He sees us loving one another unconditionally, He will again entrust us with the holy Beit Hamikdash and the Final Redemption.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

*Name changed to protect the individuals privacy.

I Have Sinned!

Blog.jpgThis week I committed a terrible sin, and I still feel awful when I think about it.

It was a typical day at our Chabad camp. Halfway through, lunch arrived from Eighteen restaurant. Passing through the kitchen shortly after lunch, I noticed some leftovers, so I took a plate and ate what appeared to be two falafel balls.

A couple of hours later my beloved, caring wife brought me lunch—a delicious, oozy, toasted cheese sandwich. I devoured it, recited the blessing we say upon finishing a meal, and continued with my work.

An hour or so later, my wife popped into my office and happened to notice the plate of "falafel" I had eaten earlier. She asked me if I'd eaten any, and when I confirmed that I had, she said, "You know, those are meatballs..."

I was shocked.

According to Jewish law one may not mix dairy and meat, and this extends to a waiting period of six hours after eating meat before one may eat dairy. And here I am, having just eaten a cheese sandwich only two hours after eating meat balls!

I was devastated.

The following day I confided in a friend of mine. The first thing he asked me is, "Rabbi, is that really the biggest sin you've ever committed?"

Then he asked what many people wonder. "Rabbi, I don't understand. Do you really thing G-d cares what you ate for lunch, or how much time you waited between your meals? Just dealing with Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton must keep Him busy on a full time basis. Not to mention all the other world events and national news we've been dealing with this summer. Terrorist attacks, a near coup in Turkey and all the unrest right here in America. With all this going on, do you really think G-d cares about your toasted cheese sandwich?"

My friend certainly has a point. But I asked him to consider what makes a marriage thrive. How does one maintain a relationship for many years? By focusing on the little things. It's imperative to keep giving small gifts, sharing meaningful compliments, thoughtful comments and spending time together on a regular basis. The grand yearly vacations and the exquisite anniversary gifts are nice. But not enough. It's the ongoing tiny gestures that build true intimacy and love.

Likewise, in our relationship with G-d, it's those small, everyday matters that keep our connection strong. Of course G-d is just as involved in the big decisions, like who will be the most powerful person in the world, but He cares just as much about my lunch. In fact, this week's Torah portion outlines the laws of keeping a kosher home.

So, why am I publically sharing my sin with you? Because if there is even one Jew who reads this and eats even one kosher meal as a result, it will help me repair my relationship with G-d.

So please help me repent!

Plagiarized Speech!

blog.jpgThis week a speech was given, and it was no ordinary speech. 

The speech was long-anticipated, and watched around the globe.

It was a speech that was intended to shake up the world. 

The speaker was paid top dollar, for what was supposed to be completely original. “Original,” that was the key to the value of the speech.

When the moment arrived, the speaker spoke gracefully and with eloquence. But there was one big catch—the words were not original, and the person who hired the speaker was furious!

This was the largest case of plagiarism in the history of the world!

Who was the speaker? 

None other than the prophet Bila'am. 

Bila'am, who we read about in this week's Torah portion, was the most sought after speaker in the world at that time. He was hired and paid an exorbitant sum of money to give a monumental speech, cursing out the Jews. Balak, the anti-Semitic king, hired the prophet Bila'am—whose words usually came to fruition—to curse the Jews and wipe them off the earth. 

But his plans were thwarted. G-d rewrote the speech, and Bila'am found himself speaking about the beauty of the Jewish nation. He was forced to stick to the text that G-d provided him. 

He praised them: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!" He spoke glowingly of their modesty, humility, strength and virtue. He spoke about the future Redemption and the coming of Moshiach at the end of days. 

As Jews, our strength lies with our words. This is the message we need to internalize in 2016.

It's so easy to get into negative speech patterns. To find fault with others and to discuss their shortcomings among ourselves. It's tempting to criticize and poke fun and argue. Of course, there are so many things we disagree about and people we disagree with, but let's make an effort to use our mouths to highlight the things that unite us. Let's focus on finding the good in others and speaking only positively about one another. The power of speech is inestimable. 

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

I've Been Playing Pokémon Go Since I was 13

Screenshot 2016-07-14 at 5.13.13 PM.pngUnless you've been on an internet cleanse this week, you must have heard all about the new game, Pokémon Go, which has taken the world by storm. It's been downloaded more than 10 million times since its launch on July 7, which means that in just one week, it has almost as many users as Uber!

The game is based on augmented reality, but unlike other games which are usually played while sedentary, Pokémon Go requires the player to physically move around, exploring different locations in an attempt to find and capture virtual creatures called Pokémon. The hunt is on!

To me, the game is nothing new. As Jews, we have been playing a version of Pokémon Go for thousands of years.

According to Kabbalah, the world that we live in is "augmented." The world that we see is not the real world. There is a deeper spiritual reality hidden in the world, which will only be revealed with the coming of Moshiach.

For example, we see a delicious steak sitting on a plate, just waiting for us to bite into and enjoy. But in that steak is a spark of G-dliness for us to "capture”. How can we do that? By making a blessing before we eat it, and then using the energy the steak gives us to do something holy.

Likewise, when we see a $100 bill, what we don't see is the powerful spark of G-dliness hidden within that will be "captured" as soon as we give 10% to charity.

The same way virtual Pokémon are all around you, so are these Divine sparks. And just like Pokémon Go requires the player to go outside and visit different locations, our job is to go outside, find and capture these Divine sparks wherever they may be.

Pokémon Go brings people together—it directs people to communal "Pokéstops" and makes strangers team up and talk to each other. So does Torah. Our "Pokéstops" are shuls, Chabad houses, and learning centers where we gather to study and better ourselves.

In Pokémon Go, players can climb the ranks and become trainers by catching more Pokémons. Likewise, we are all trainers. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, "If you know an aleph, teach an aleph." It's our job to teach others any Torah we study, or mitzvos we know, even if we don't feel like experts.

Pokémon Go continues to play as long as your battery is running. It's constant. Likewise, from the moment a girl turns 12 and a boy turns 13, we are on the go, searching out Divine sparks to capture and elevate. And like the game's slogan, our goal is to "Catch 'em all!"

The game only ends when the player "dies" and that's when the score card is revealed. When we die, and our souls return to Heaven, we will finally be able to see how many Divine sparks we caught during our lifetime. As long as we're here, in the physical world, our job is to go out and accumulate as many as possible.

A large part of the Pokémon Go thrill is the social media sharing and competitiveness. It's something to post about, tweet about, share and compare with others. Players feed off one another, trying to outdo each other.

While we are not in competition with each other, by posting and sharing when we do a mitzvah, perhaps we can inspire and motivate others to spread Torah, do more mitzvos and help one another. By working together, we can collect more sparks and hasten the coming of Moshiach.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Lessons from the Star of David

trumpstar8e-1-web.jpgWhat’s on America’s mind this week? The Star of David of course!

Donald Trump set off a firestorm when he tweeted a graphic criticizing Hillary Clinton which featured a six-pointed star, a pile of cash and the words "most corrupt candidate ever."

Critics complained that the graphic evoked anti-Semitic imagery because it was a Star of David, and Trump responded that it was intended to represent a sheriff’s badge. 

Meanwhile, the argument continues all over social media, with millions of people talking about the six-pointed star. Which was it? The Star of David or the sherrif’s badge?

If you examine the Star of David closely, you will see one of the most beautiful messages for both Presidential candidates and for all humanity.

The Star of David comprises two triangles—one pointing up and the other pointing down.

The triangle pointing upwards symbolizes our mission to elevate ourselves. It is our job to refine and uplift ourselves, becoming better, holier, and gentler, more loving people.  Not to lie, not to be corrupt or greedy.

Then we have the second triangle, the one facing downwards.  This signifies our quest to draw G-d down into this world. G-d wants to feel comfortable here. He wants to call it His home, His garden, and it’s up to us to create that environment for Him.

Treating every human being with dignity and respect helps make G-d comfortable down here. Making sure there is no trace of anti-Semitism around is greatly appreciated by G-d. Setting aside our ego and arrogance, and embracing humility instead, invites G-d into the world. When we pray or study or give charity, we help draw G-d into our world.

The foundering fathers of this country understood the meaning of the Star of David. They founded the greatest, most benevolent, generous, kind, humane, and free country in the history of the world (that’s the triangle pointing up).

Later leaders wrote on the dollar bill, "in G-d we trust," and adopted "G-d bless America" as one of the country’s best-known songs. This is the triangle facing down.

I have no doubt that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton love this great country, as we all should.

Take a step back and absorb the lessons of the Star of David!

Dear Rebbe, I Miss You

Rebbe1.jpgDear Rebbe

I miss you. We all miss you.

It's been 22 long, dark years since we last saw you.

Twenty-two years is a long time. Too long.

More than two decades have passed since we had the privilege of hearing you bless, inspire and teach us.

Rebbe, the world has changed tremendously over the last 22 years.

In 1994 we were using VHS, cassette tape recorders, transistor radios, walkmans, calculator watches, dial-up modems, floppy discs and VCR's.

Now our children don’t even know what any of those technologies are. Instead we use email, smartphones, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, tablets and wifi.

Not only has the world changed, but at times it seems that humanity itself is deteriorating rapidly. Terrorism is growing, the stability of long-time Western super-powers is in question, and the world seems ever more dangerous. Concerning, too, are people’s reactions to terror. People care more about a gorilla being shot to save a toddler’s life than they do about a 13-year-old girl who was brutally murdered in her bed.

After 22 years of darkness, it’s hard to stay optimistic, Rebbe. I struggle to convey to my children the fire you lit within us and how connected we were to you. I struggle with my own cynicism and doubt. I struggle to keep your vision and mission in the forefront of my mind.

There was once another child torn away from his father for 22 tortuous years. Joseph. He was separated from his beloved father Jacob, sold into slavery, and exiled to Egypt with absolutely no glimmer of pending salvation.

What kept Joseph strong during those 22 years? The Torah that his father had conveyed to him when he last studied with him.

Like Joseph, we have not forgotten what you taught us. Although the world has changed drastically, one thing that has not changed since 1994 are your words of hope and inspiration which we continue to cherish.

Rebbe, you taught us to believe in humanity. You taught us to believe in the power of goodness, hope, and the ultimate triumph of light over dark. You promised that we will ultimately prevail and that we will see the arrival of Moshiach in our generation. And that has not changed. That promise is what has kept us going for the last painful 22 years.

Elie Wiesel, who just passed away this week, came to see you after the Holocaust. The victim of unfathomable suffering and atrocities, he expressed his refusal to bring children into this dark and bitter world. But you taught him to believe. You taught him to continue, to have children, and that doing so would be the best revenge against those who had tried to obliterate the Jewish people.

Rebbe, you promised us that the darkness will end soon. We’re still waiting.

Wouldn't now be a good time to reunite?

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

A Call To Arms

Bare arms.jpgDear America,

We have been attacked, and we are still reeling from the shock. Outrage, fury and devastation are just some of the emotions we are all experiencing.

When Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor in 1941, we were also outraged. But then, we knew who the enemy was and we weren’t going to sit around and do nothing. So we sent in our military and we obliterated our enemy.

Now, after Omar Mateen murdered 49 people in Orlando, in the largest mass shooting in American history, we are also enraged. We would love to unleash our military might against the enemy, but where do we send our F16’s? To which country do we send our B52 bombers?

And so, we look for somebody or something to blame.

Democrats want to blame the lack of gun control, Republicans claim that if more citizens were armed, they could have prevented the attacks. Trump calls for a temporary ban on Muslims, while Obama and Clinton say that is outrageous.

So, what can we do?

It’s 2016, and we are fighting a very different type of war: homegrown terror and lone wolf attacks.

But whether it is San Bernardino, Orlando, Brussels, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Paris, there seems to be one common denominator:

The internet.

The current violence is being perpetrated by individuals who are being riled up from watching a YouTube channel or reading a Facebook post.

When a person posts something negative and hateful on the internet, it travels around the world within seconds, contaminating the mind of somebody in California or Orlando. Some crazy, deranged, guy may read it and be influenced to go on a mass shooting spree.

Of course, the ultimate responsibility and blame lies with the shooter. But, is there something we can do to help prevent the next attack?

There are 300 million of us living here in America. Ancient battles were fought by soldiers but today we are all warriors on the front lines.It is up to each and every one of us to counter this evil.

So, what do we do?

Start flooding your social media accounts with messages of love, hope and inspiration. Talk about how much you love your life and those in it. Every day post something inspirational, your Mitzvah and act of kindness. Let’s flood the internet with goodness and kindness. It will spread, filling people’s minds with hope and happiness.

This is the way to counter homegrown terror. We can influence the crazy few by flooding their news feed with messages of love, instead of animosity and hatred.

Together, we can do this.

Yours truly

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

Lies, Lies, and More Lies About Israel

Blog.jpgTwenty two years ago, I first studied the Mishna (Sotah 49B) which discusses the status of the world in the time leading up to the coming of Moshiach. Back then, when I read that “truth will be hidden,” I didn’t understand. Will there be no truth at all? The entire world will be full of lies? How could that be?

Likewise, when I read, “There will be tremendous chutspah in the world,” I had trouble comprehending. Maybe a little, I can understand. But a lot? And in the whole world? How is it possible?

But now, 22 years later, I’m starting to understand.

Last night, I was shocked by the terrible terrorist attack in Tel Aviv. Two Palestinian terrorists murdered four Israelis in cold blood, wounding six others.

When terrorists attack in any other first-world country, what happens? The entire world condemns it. Just look at Paris and Brussels! But when it happens in Israel, where is the condemnation? The outrage? Israel must fight to even have their terrorism acknowledged!

How was last night’s terrorist attack reported by the mainstream media?

“2 Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Gunmen Kill 3 in Central Tel Aviv” (RT News) 

“Tel Aviv Shooting: Three Killed in Shopping Center Attack” (BBC). 

“Two ‘Terrorists’ Arrested” (CNN).

“Three Killed In Mass Shooting in Tel Aviv” (Sky News) 

“Palestinian Gunmen Open Fire in Tel Aviv” (NY Times).

No mention of terrorism at all, except for CNN who mockingly put it in quotes. Baffling.

It’s fascinating that the Mishna, written by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi over 2000 years ago, predicts so accurately the state of the world in 2016. Our world is, indeed, filled with falsehood and lies. If you need proof, look no further than these headlines describing the murder of innocent Jews at the hands of bloodthirsty Palestinian terrorists.

Today, the Washington Post’s headlines included, “Israel sends more troops to West Bank, freezes Palestinian entry permits after attack.”

Really? Is that the headline? Shouldn’t the headline be about the monstrous act of terror which necessitated Israel taking those steps to protect its citizens? Think what America would do if an act of terror, like this, happened. Surely, they would not be satisfied to call it a shooting and allow life to go on as usual.

Here are six truths the world needs to hear loudly and clearly:

1.      There is not, nor has there ever been, a Palestinian nation.

2.      Israel belongs to the Jewish people. G-d gave the land of Israel to the Jews over 4000 years ago, and we have had a continuous presence there for the past 3300 years.

3.      There are no “Israeli settlements.” There are Jewish people living in Jewish homes and Jewish towns. 

4.      Israel is the victim, not the aggressor.

5.      These terrorist attacks are not the work of a few Palestinian extremists. Polls show that well over half of them support the cold-blooded butchering of innocent Jews.

6.      The Arab objective is not to establish the 22nd Arab state, but to destroy the only Jewish state. 

The Mishna which addresses the state we currently find ourselves in—a world of lies—prophetically ends, “On whom can we rely? On our Father in Heaven.” We see this now, more than ever. He is our only hope. Let’s get together this week, for the holiday of Shavuot, and re-declare our love for Him, and commitment to His Torah.

Isaiah vs. Harambe; Boy vs. Gorilla

Blog.jpgDear Isaiah,

The internet has been abuzz with your story all week. Millions of people worldwide watched the video of you being dragged across a moat by Harambe, the 450-pound gorilla.

I am not sure how, at three years old, you managed to climb over a 3-foot high railing, walk through bushes and then jump 15 feet into a shallow moat, but hey, you did it! 

I must say, I love gorillas. I was born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa, and every year during vacation our family would spend a few days at the Kruger National Park enjoying the lions, cheetah, gorillas etc. As a result, I developed a deep love for animals. And so your story touched my heart, as it touched millions of others across the globe.

To save your life, Cincinnati Zoo officials shot and killed their beloved Harambe. Thank G-d you came out safe.

The incident ignited nationwide uproar, some criticizing the zoo’s decision to kill the gorilla instead of using other means such as a tranquilizer, and others pointing fingers at your mother.

Really, it all boils down to whose life is more important. Yours or Harambes? A 3-year-old little boy, or a 17-year-old almost-extinct gorilla?

The answer, Isaiah, depends on you. As humans, we are different from animals in a unique way—we have the ability to make our minds rule over our hearts. That means we can use our rationale to temper and control our emotions and desires. If we feel hatred in our hearts, for example, we can use our minds to transform that into feelings of love. If we see something we really want, but doesn't belong to us, we can use our heads to overcome that temptation.

A gorilla, on the other hand, cannot do this. Animals are ruled by instinct. They need to eat, they eat. They need to sleep, they sleep. They need to kill, they kill. A gorilla, like all animals, is ruled by his nature and cannot transcend it.

And so, Isaiah, if you grow up and perform acts of goodness and kindness, then you are much greater than the gorilla. If you live your life by using your mind to rule your heart, your life is infinitely more worthwhile than the gorilla's.

You see, when G-d created the world, he created animals before humans. Why?

If man rises above his ego, we say, "Look, you were created last, like a king. Everything else was created for you, ready for the moment you came into existence." But if a person acts inappropriately, we say, "Look, even animals are better than you—they were created first!"

So, Isaiah, what kind of life will you live? If you make the right choices, you will forever silence the critics who think the gorilla's life was more important than yours. It's up to you.

Wishing you a productive life

Rabbi Uriel Vigler 

GRAPHIC CONTENT: VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED – Video of the Gorilla 

Screenshot 2016-06-02 at 4.10.57 PM.png

Becoming Best Friends

Blog.jpgExactly 10 days ago we began our 2016 Belev Echad trip. It's fascinating to see just how much has changed between that first day, and today, less than two weeks later. 

On the first day, our 12 IDF soldiers arrived as guests. A couple had been injured together, and were deeply bonded, some knew each other peripherally from spending time in the same hospitals, but for the most part, they were strangers. 

Over the last ten days, however, they stayed together, ate together, toured together and traveled together. They cried and laughed together, and inspired others as a group. By now, any shyness 
has been completely wiped away, replaced with deep personal connections, and intense bonds that will undoubtedly last for years to come. 

We know that loving our fellow Jews is one of the most important commandments, and one many of us struggle with. But if a group of people can bond, becoming lifelong friends, after only 10 days of shared experiences, what's our excuse?

What cemented our soldiers' friendships? Essentially, for 10 days, they spent every waking moment together, in a foreign country, with a shared mission and sense of purpose. 

Likewise, we Jews are foreigners in this world, with a shared purpose—to elevate the world, spreading G-dliness to those around us, in preparation for the final Redemption. 

And, like the soldiers, we have a shared history. We've been through the same experiences as a nation over the last 4,000 years. 

If they can bond in 10 days, surely we can manage, over the course of our lives, to bond with and learn to love and respect the rest of our "entourage"—our fellow Jews. 

In fact, this week we celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer. 

The Talmud relates that in the weeks preceding Lag Baomer a plague aged amongst the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva, “because they did not act respectfully towards each other.” These weeks are therefore observed as a period of mourning, with various joyous activities proscribed by law and custom. On Lag BaOmer the deaths ceased. Thus, Lag BaOmer also carries the theme of the imperative to love and respect one’s fellow (ahavat yisrael).

Removed His Eye – @ Ripley’s Believe it Or Not

Screenshot 2016-05-19 at 11.33.03 AM.pngAfter bringing 110 wounded IDF soldiers to NYC over 11 separate trips, I thought I had seen it all: Amputated arms, amputated legs, missing fingers…But this week I met Ron Abdan. A few months ago Ron was manning a guard post in Beit Jalla when an explosive device was thrown at him. He maintained severe injuries, including the loss of his left eye, where he now wears a prosthetic.

This week we were at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a museum dedicated to the unbelievable. Ripley’s goal is to stun the viewers with all kinds of oddities and extremes. The soldiers were laughing, chatting, and just generally having a good time checking out all the displays. 

Now, Israelis are particularly partial to black comedy, so Ron approached the people at the front desk and told them that he, too, has a “believe it or not” trick. When he removed his false eye from its socket, he indeed stunned the crowd!

Looking beyond the surface, I realized that Ron is in severe pain and discomfort most of the time. His life has changed irreparably, but he makes light of his situation. He manages to find the humor and opportunities to laugh and make others laugh. This is his way of dealing with the pain and suffering.

In fact, we know from the Talmud that Judaism considers it a great mitzvah to find the humor any given situation and lighten the atmosphere. Rabbi Beroka used to frequent the marketplace, at times accompanied by Elijah the Prophet. Once, while conversing, they passed two men, and Elijah remarked that these men were destined to have a special portion in the World to Come.

Rabbi Beroka approached the men and asked, “What is your occupation?”

“We are jesters,” they explained. “When we see someone miserable, we cheer them up.”

For this, they merited a special portion in the afterlife.

There’s a lot for us to learn from Ron, too.

If we take careful note of what causes us to laugh, we’ll notice it’s usually a sharp and improbable juxtaposition of opposites. The more extreme the contrast, the more intense the laughter.

Our sages tell us that when Moshiach comes the earth will be filled with laughter. Why will we laugh? Because our new life will be in such sharp contrast to what we are accustomed.

Can you imagine a situation where the Palestinians will lay down their weapons? It’s unheard of! Can you imagine that there will be a cure for cancer? It will make us laugh with joy! Can you imagine a world with no gossip? What will we talk about?

Things will be weird and different, but wonderful, and therefore we will laugh. People will live forever. Nobody will be sick. Nations will be at peace with each other. This is the ultimate juxtaposition of opposites.

How do we bring Moshiach? Be being happy and laughing! Our sages tell us that "Simchah (joy and happiness) breaks through boundaries." We all possess internal walls surrounding our minds and hearts, creating our inhibitions and making us scared to grow and change beyond our comfort zone. When we are sad and gloomy, these walls are strengthened. Our positive energy and vitality is drained from our system, causing us to slip into apathy and complacency.

I look forward to joking with Ron. You see, when Moshiach comes Ron and I will go back to Ripley’s, where we will perform a new trick—we will show them Ron’s two healthy eyes, and oh, how we will all laugh! When Moshiach comes, all sickness will be cured and no one will suffer again. When we think of that, how can we not laugh?

Who’s Your Enemy?

Blog.jpgItchy eyes…runny nose…scratchy throat…in the springtime…

No doubt about it, it must be allergy season.

At first, I tried to ignore it. After all, I’ve never been one of those people who walk around with swollen, watery eyes from the first whiff of a springtime blossom. In fact, I’ve never experienced any pollen-related ill effects at all.

Until now.

After several days of denial, I finally came to the realization that I have now joined the ranks of the 50 million Americans who suffer from pollen. I’ve managed to keep it under control with eye drops and Claritin, and in the process I’ve learned a whole lot more about seasonal allergies than I ever thought I would.

Apparently, many people’s bodies mistakenly recognize pollen as a danger, rather than the benign substance it actually is. In response to this perceived threat, the immune system rallies to neutralize the invading allergen by releasing histamines into the blood. It’s the histamines which cause the runny noses, itchy eyes and other unpleasant symptoms.

There is currently no known cure for allergies, just multiple ways to manage it, from over-the-counter nasal sprays to acupuncture to doctor-prescribed steroids. With an estimated 50 million sufferers, it is the country’s most common disease and approximately $18 billion are spent on it each year.

All this, and what is the root cause? Misidentifying the enemy. Our body’s inability to differentiate between a real threat and those cute little pollen particles, that only want to help invigorate floral growth, leads to chronic suffering for millions of people for a significant chunk of time each year.

What can we learn from all this?

Like our physical bodies, our souls also react to friendly and harmful substances, but we are the gatekeepers. It’s our job to identify which things to keep out, and which to allow in. 

Going to shul, studying Torah, keeping kosher, putting on tefillin, giving charity, lighting Shabbat candles—superb for the soul. Gossip, lying, cheating, slander—extremely harmful.

It’s our responsibility to weed through all the opportunities and temptations that come our way, hand-picking the things we allow in, so that our souls remain healthy and strong.

And in this way we will fulfill the first commandment of this week’s Torah portion “You shall be holy.”

"Stay Put! We're Coming to You..."

Blog.jpgThis past Shabbat, two 16-year-old Chabad students, Rivka Moshe and Brocha Katz, went missing while on a weekend Shabbaton trip with their classmates. They were staying at a hotel in Florida, which is surrounded by      a thick forest. The girls went for a walk on Shabbat afternoon, and did not return at the appointed time. 

Because it was Shabbat, we knew they had nothing with them. No food, water, money or cell phone.

Like thousands of other people around the world, when I heard the news I was extremely worried. Were they kidnapped? Lured into a bad area? Could it possibly be terrorism? And even if they were "just" lost, this is a Florida forest, near a lake, where alligators and snakes abound. How would they stay safe? 

With all this in mind, I gathered my children and we recited tehillim (Psalms) together, in the merit of these two young women. We prayed for their safety, their speedy return, and their parents' peace of mind. 

And we were certainly not the only ones. It was later calculated that approximately 15,175 chapters of tehillim were recited for these two girls. In fact, the entire book was tehillim was completed 89 times by a combined 4,246 readers. Moreover, 350 people committed to doing a new mitzvah in their merit. The global Jewish community joined forces in an effort to storm the Heavens for their safe return. 

Thankfully, the girls survived. They got lost in the forest and ended up stuck in a marsh, from which they were extracted the next day. 

I was thinking that there is a tremendous lesson here for all of us. These young girls were lost in a massive dark forest, and we, too, are lost—in this dark, bitter exile. 

The further the girls walked, the more difficult the terrain became, and the more lost they became. Likewise, the further we travel through the exile, the more entrenched in it we become. Each generation of Jews born into this exile is like taking another step, walking another mile, as the terrain becomes more spiritually treacherous and ever darker. 

At one point, the swamp was so deep that the girls found themselves in murky water up to their chins. We, too, are chin deep in this exile, and many of us have begun to lose hope that Redemption will ever arrive. 

When asked what gave them strength, they both mentioned that hearing the helicopters buzzing overhead throughout the night gave them the encouragement they needed to push through and keep their spirits up.

And when a helicopter finally spotted the girls, he threw down a note, on which he wrote, "Stay put! We are coming to you." 

We are about to celebrate Passover, the festival of freedom, when we eat matzah, which is called the bread of faith. When we crunch on the matzah, it sounds like those choppers. It reminds us that just as G-d took the Jews out of Egypt all those years ago, He will, without doubt, redeem us too. It gives us hope. 

Passover is like a personal note from G-d, reassuring us that He knows where we are, and that Moshiach is on the way. It's up to us to hold on and stay strong until that rescue mission is complete. 

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