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I Made a Mistake in the Most Important Sermon of the Year

sandy-koufax.jpgOn Yom Kippur, hundreds of people attended our synagogue and I prepared a sermon that I hoped would inspire. One of the stories I told was that of legendary baseball player Sandy Koufax. Arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, Koufax made a different kind of history on this exact day, 50 years ago at the World Series.

The LA Dodgers were up against the Minnesota Twins, and it was Yom Kippur.

Now, Sandy did not have a particularly religious upbringing. He didn’t go to cheder or yeshiva; he went to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. And pitching was his life, his legacy, his everything.

Nevertheless, he decided to forgo the game and stay home, fast and observe Yom Kippur! What an incredible example he set for Jews nation-wide.

In my sermon, I mistakenly said that Sandy went to shul that Yom Kippur, and afterwards my friend Yankel* came over to correct me.

“Great sermon,” he said, “but Sandy Koufax did not go to shul that Yom Kippur.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because five years ago, your uncle, Rabbi Moshe Feller, was a guest speaker in our shul,” he explained. “He told the same story, and he related that he personally went to put on tefillin with Koufax two days after Yom Kippur in 1965 at the request of the LubavitcherRebbe. When he told the story, he said Sandy fasted and prayed but did not go to shul.”

“Wow!” I said to my friend Yankel*. “That is amazing. I’ve given countless sermons over the last five years and most of them you don’t recall at all, and those you do, you certainly don’t remember in such fine detail. But this one you remember perfectly five years later—how is that?”

“A sermon like that about Koufax, one never forgets,” he explained.

We just finished Yom Kippur, when we all fasted, prayed and resolved to become better people, better Jews, better spouses, fathers, mothers, children etc.

Now that Yom Kippur is over, we need to make sure we don’t lose any of that inspiration and momentum. We need to ensure that the intense feelings we experienced over Yom Kippur stay with us throughout the year.

As my friend Yankel* showed, when something is important to us, we don’t forget it. 

Clock or Bomb?

Blog.pngThis week a bright, innovative American-Muslim teenager, Ahmed Mohamed, successfully built a working, home-made, digital clock, and brought it to school to show his teacher. Unfortunately, that's where things began to sour for the promising young student.

Teachers at the Texas school thought it looked very suspicious. Thinking it was a bomb, they called the police. Mohamed was handcuffed, escorted from the building by law enforcement officials, and taken to a juvenile detention facility for several hours before being released. The police have made it clear they will not be filing charges, but the school has suspended Ahmed for three days, regardless.

Ahmed's story has captured the interest of people across the nation, and #IStandwithAhmed was the number one trending hashtag yesterday. Understandably, people are outraged that a young 14-year-old was handcuffed and interrogated, accused of building a bomb, when he is simply an aspiring engineer, who enjoys tinkering with and building working electronic devices. 

Support on social media has been tremendous, with President Obama tweeting an invite to the White House:

“Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”

Numerous science camps, contests and programs have offered Ahmed a spot, Mark Zuckerberg invited him to stop by Facebook headquarters anytime, and Twitter offered him an internship!

And so, Ahmed became an instant national celebrity, discussed and supported over all over the internet.


This Tuesday night we will usher in the holiest and most serious day of the year, Yom Kippur—the Day of Judgment. On this day all our thoughts, words and actions over the past 12 months are replayed and evaluated by the heavenly court. And it looks very suspicious. All the juicy gossip we enjoyed, the slander and lies we told, promises we made and broke...all this is held against us by the prosecuting angels. They insist on severe punishment.

So the Chief of Police—the Almighty Himself—is called, and He takes on our case. G-d examines the facts, but he also looks at our current behavior and state of mind. He sees us in the synagogue, pouring out our very heart and soul. He sees the depth of our regret and our deep desire for repentance and improvement. He sees our very essence, and how genuinely good we really are, despite the many misdeeds we have accumulated.

That's when G-d takes out his "digital clock" and turns time back. The Talmud tells us that the sins we committed, even deliberately, are turned into mitzvahs. G-d changes all the sins we committed over the past year and turns transforms them into good deeds!

But that's not all. G-d goes even further and says we were wrongly accused in the first place, and He is so outraged that He invites us to His "house" for the festival of Sukkot. "You were accused unjustly," He says. "Really and truly you are good and kind and for seven days I want you to be My personal guest in My house. Please come!"

As Yom Kippur approaches, let's make sure we are ready to pray and repent from the depths of our hearts, so we'll be ready for G-d to invite us into His home on Sukkot next week.

My thanks to Efraim Tessler for some of the ideas in this article. 

I Couldn’t Resist Her!

Blog.jpgThis past Wednesday night I put my 20-month-old daughter, Sarah, to sleep in her crib. We have a nightly bedtime routine. I hold her in my arms and sing Shema as well as the 12 pesukim (12 verses of the Torah which encapsulate many of Judaism’s fundamental teachings). Then I lay her down, sing her a chassidic tune and make sure she has her water bottle with her in case she gets thirsty during the night.

She usually falls asleep instantly, but this time as soon as I left the room I heard her crying for me, “Tatty! Tatty!” Thinking she would fall asleep, I ignored her and began working on my Rosh Hashanah sermon. But she continued to cry and when I realized she was not falling asleep as predicted, I relented and went back into her room. She was standing at her crib and broke out into the most adorable smile as soon as she saw me. I couldn’t resist. I took her out of her crib and let her hang out with me in the living room for the next hour.

Tatty vs. Sarah: Sarah wins!

In just a few days we will celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, when G-d judges every one of us. We beseech Him for a good, sweet, healthy year. On our prayers we acknowledge, “As a shepherd examines his flock making his sheep pass before him, so do You cause to pass every living being and You allocate the fixed portion of their needs and inscribe the verdict of their judgment.”

We all carry some sort of burden. Perhaps we are in need of health, livelihood, children, happiness or a spouse. We all have our problems and our prayers.

But G-d loves each of us as if we were His only child. The same love that I feel for Sarah is the love that G-d feels for all of us. G-d adores us! And just as I couldn’t resist my daughter’s pleas for more than 15 minutes,G-d cannot resist us—His beloved children.

When we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and pray from the depths of our hearts, it is impossible for G-d not to listen .

G-d vs. us—we win!

May G-d listen to all our prayers and supplications this Rosh Hashanah, and may He send us Moshiach and redeem us from exile right now. 

Monkey See, Monkey Do

IMG_0596.JPGLast week we returned from a trip to South Africa, the country where I grew up. I always enjoy spending time there, and for my kids who are growing up in the Manhattan city life, going back to nature was a blessing and a breath of fresh air.

While there, we went on a day trip to the famous monkey sanctuary just outside of Johannesburg, where hundreds of monkeys roam freely, swinging on ropes, living their life, and tourists can walk right through and take pictures.

My kids thoroughly enjoyed this thrilling experience, but at the same time they were a little scared. I walked right up to one of the monkeys who the park had nicknamed "Zaza." Zaza examined me, and without blinking she jumped right onto my head! Then she stretched her hand down into my shirt pocket to see what was in there. When she realized it was empty, she reached down into my pant pocket and tried again. Also empty. I felt her going for my back pocket, and since that's where I keep my credit cards and keys, I wasn't going to take any chances! I jumped and Zaza flew off.

"How did she know to do that?" I asked our guide. "She knew exactly where my pockets were, and she knew to look in them."

"Zaza sees people every day," he explained. "She watches them carefully and notices they are always putting their hands into their pockets to remove items, so she knows where everything is. As the saying goes, "Monkey see, monkey do,"—she is an expert mimic!"

The Baal Shem Tov teaches us that from everything in life we need to learn a lesson.

Every single one of us has a soul which is a part of G-d, and before it descended into our body it was enjoying Divine delicacies and spirituality. Our souls felt closer to G-d surrounded and nurtured by the beautiful and blissful Divine palace.

But then the soul descends into this universe to live inside the body. The soul then quickly forgets about its royal blood and starts to mimic its new physical world. We start living our lives mimicking and copying everything we see. We start to enjoy the physical pleasures of this world, forgetting that we are children of G-d. And that is why Rosh Hashanah comes around.

We are only days away from Rosh Hashanah, when we will blow the shofar, once more crowning G-d as our King.  On Rosh Hashana we will remind ourselves of our Divine heritage, that we are children of G-d, that we have strayed too far this past year, mimicking many of the things we've seen in the world around us.

We know we are special, of Divine origin. Let's return to our true selves this Rosh Hashanah. This Saturday night we begin to recite the selichot prayers which mark the beginning of the High Holiday season.

All year round we are like mimicking monkeys. We act like those around us. We copy everything we see. We become deeply entrenched in the physical world. But when Rosh Hashanah comes around, it is time to return to our roots. 

Walking with Lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R.I.P. Cecil the lion

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Torah describes the destruction as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conversation with an IDF Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Name changed to protect the individual’s privacy

The Signing of a Deal

Blog.jpgThis week a deal was signed.

A deal that involved intense leader negotiation.

A deal with much at stake.

A deal that aroused powerful emotion on both sides.

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

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

A deal in which the entire Jewish nation felt invested.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Close Call!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Muslim Helps a Rabbi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bar Mitzvah at 53, at Starbucks

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

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

Let me tell you a story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Name changed to protect privacy

Lost $22,000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Name changed to protect privacy

United We Stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Want Somebody Normal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

I Want To Fight

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

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